All you really need to know about Gulliver’s Travels is that Jack Black plays Gulliver. Which, of course, means that Black plays the same schlubby, quirky, mildly offensive loser with a Peter Pan complex that he plays in every other movie. Except in this one he is surrounded by tiny people! While this simple premise may coax pre-pubescent boys into theaters this winter, resist the urge to go with them. Save yourselves.
In the first live-action adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s classic tales since the 1996 TV mini-series starring Ted Danson in a Jesus wig, Black is Lemuel Gulliver, a mail room clerk at a chic New York newspaper. Wearing ironic T-shirts and Converse sneakers in an otherwise sleek office, Gulliver’s work seems to consist of playing Rock Band and developing an unrequited crush on a perky travel editor named Darcy (Amanda Peet). When a new hire usurps control of the mail room, Gulliver tries to summon the courage to ask Darcy out on a date, but ends up offering to pen a travel piece for the paper. A few plagiarized writing samples from Frommer’s later and he’s off on a three-week excursion to the Bermuda Triangle.
We all know how that turns out. After being sucked into an oceanic vortex, Gulliver wakes up in Lilliput, a land of miniature people who live on what looks like a cross between the abandoned set of a BBC period piece and the island from Lost. Gulliver, now a threatening giant, is held captive but quickly works his stoner charms and is hailed as a god in no time (he claims to be the president of the island of Manhattan).
This plot point might seem outlandish if the Lilliputians weren’t so stupid, but they generally run around like confused dolls acting out a Shakespeare farce—the Doozers from Fraggle Rock had more gravitas. There’s King Theodore (Billy Connolly), who’s straight out of a Monty Python sketch; his blank-faced, bosom-heaving daughter, Princess Mary (Emily Blunt, who seems to have taken a wrong turn after Queen Victoria); her heartsick suitor, Horatio (Jason Segel); and the blustering, bloodthirsty, mustachioed General Edward (Chris O’Dowd), head of the Lilliputian army and Gulliver’s primary nemesis.
There are intermittent bright spots—Gulliver has the Lilliputians act out scenes from Star Wars and Titanic, claiming that they’re from his life story, and, later, is forced to be the plaything of an extremely aggressive young girl when he ventures over to an island inhabited by people even larger than he—but this crude update is neither funny enough to be a comedy or clever enough to be a parody. The movie lost me early on, I’ll admit, during an extended segment in which Gulliver saves King Theodore, who is trapped in a burning building, by urinating all over the place. One doesn’t often get to see a golden shower in a family movie, and I can only imagine how that scene played in 3-D.
In summation, I can only say, Lemuel Gulliver? More like Lame-uel. And don’t groan; that joke is good enough to have made it into this movie.