The pitch to remake this 18th century literary classic was probably four words: “Gulliver’s Travels” Jack Black. No adjectives, no adverbs, and, most of all, no imagination. Fox took the bait, and this Christmas there’s something smelling rotten under the tree.
Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller’s very childish, undernourished adaptation, coupled with Rob Letterman’s attention to Mr. Black’s awe-inspiring penis (thankfully, off screen, but still gruesome to contemplate) and its fire-extinguishing capabilities is enough that no guesswork is needed as to why novelist Jonathan Swift’s name is nowhere to be found in the credits. (Yeah, he’s dead, but he must have a good agent.) Letterman, graduating from helming two of Dreamworks’ animated tales (“Shark Tale” and “Monsters vs. Aliens”), may keep the youngsters content with puerile situations, but their parents, unless fans of the star’s baser antics, will suffer like butter on stale popcorn.
I had hoped for something more ingenious from Stillman, a writer on “Shrek” and “Shrek 2,” but he’s obviously continuing to spiral southward since last year’s dreary “Planet 51.” It seems most of the story’s insipid input is from Nicholas Stoller, who wrote and directed “Get Him to the Greek” for the Judd Apatow school of in-your-face comedy.
The latest re-imagining follows numerous other film versions, including a 1939 animated version produced by Max Fleischer and directed by Dave Fleischer, brothers who churned out many imaginative cartoon shorts through their studio from the 1920s through the early 1940s. I’ll bet that version didn’t have a character identified as “Butt-crack Man” in the cast credits. Unfortunately Joe Lo Truglio’s appearance is quite the unfortunate cameo, perishing into the area where no one dare tread, the enormous butt of Lemuel Gulliver (Black) as he lands, a*s backward, on the tiny Lilliputian native.
The setting begins in Manhattan, where a schlubby Lemuel Gulliver has been a decade-long underachiever in the mailroom of the New York Tribune. He can’t fathom up the courage to approach the comely travel editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), and his new assistant Dan (T.J. Miller), promoted after one day on the job, foreshadows what lay ahead: “You’re never going to get any bigger than this.” The love struck and tongue-tied Gulliver plagiarizes several noted travel publications (kids, don’t try this at home, it can ruin your career) and lands a tryout assignment with the travel section, which takes him to the Bermuda Triangle.
Which takes him you know where.
Whisked through a big water spout, the human whale (full blown in 3-D) and his iPhone land on the beach of Lilliput, where the “beast” of monstrous size is immediately classified as a risk to the humble, yet imaginative (and VERY industrious) 17th century community ruled by King Theodore (Billy Connelly) and Queen Isabelle (Catherine Tate), and their beautiful daughter, Princess Mary (Emily Blunt). She’s sorta engaged to the overly self-impressed General Edward Edwardian (Chris O’Dowd, doing a suitable Alan Rickman impersonation), the milquetoast commander of the Lilliputian army. Jason Segal is the commoner whose adoration of the royal daughter gets him jailed, where he befriends “cell” mate Gulliver. Comparing love notes, the big guy assists his smaller friend, becoming an over-sized Cyrano de Bergerac as an awkward woo later ensues.
Overnight, the natives seem to conquer the problem of feeding their visitor, and soon they offer him deluxe accommodations after he saves their land from an attack by the neighboring Blefuscians. At this point, the small folk seem to be able to leap tall buildings (those they impossibly build for their enormous friend) and cater to his absurdist whims. For their guest, they stage hammed-up reenactments from “Star Wars” to “Titanic” in which Gulliver is the hero, and refashion their “downtown” to mimic Times Square, complete with audacious product placements, advertising sun tan lotion, underwear, and other nonsensical Gulliver-branded products.
The film jettisons most of the novel’s fantasy worlds, keeping the action mostly in Lilliput, with a few minutes’ excursion to Brobdingnag, where Gulliver gets all dressed up for a night in a house with some really quiet dolls. The climax seems ripped from a rejected Jules Verne work, or, more likely, out-takes from 1999’s flop tv-series-to-film adaptation “Wild Wild West,” featuring a huge robot giving Gulliver a wedgie.
The one bright moment happens before the feature even starts, with a Blue Sky Studios cartoon entitled “Scrat’s Continental Crack-Up,” in which the rascally acorn-chasing character from the “Ice Age” films follows his ever-unobtainable meal to the earth’s core. His race for the oak’s fruit provides quite a remarkable explanation for the continental shift. More of this, and less of the drivel that is “Gulliver’s Travels,” is what Hollywood should be offering up at cinemas this holiday season.