Gulliver’s Travels review

Jack Black takes centre stage in Gulliver's Travels. But is this a Boxing Day treat, or a massive misfire? Pete finds out...

When I first heard about Gulliver’s Travels starring Jack Black, during one of the Orange Wednesday adverts, I assumed it to be a rather amusing joke. The juxtaposition of rent-a-slacker Jack Black with a classic satirical novel made for a hilarious spoof of the way children’s films have been headed in recent years.

Imagine my surprise, then, when this turned out to be a real film, out in cinemas this Boxing Day. I tried to reserve judgement. I’ve seen School of Rock many times, Tenacious D songs Tribute and Wonderboy are regular visitors to my MP3 player, and I even tried to like The Pick of Destiny. As I went into the screening, I was trepidatious – would it turn out to be a Christmas cracker, or a cold, dry turkey?

In a departure from every other role he’s played since High Fidelity, Black stars as Lemuel Gulliver, a lazy, unambitious mail room worker with a heart of gold, who enjoys Star Wars and rock music.

In a bid to impress the object of his affections Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), Gulliver claims to be an experienced travel writer, and Darcy sends him off to investigate the Bermuda Triangle. But when his boat runs into a freak storm, Gulliver washes up on the shore of Lilliput, an island populated by tiny people.

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He soon ingratiates himself with the island’s population with another set of self-aggrandizing lies, earning their respect and adoration, and life seems pretty good as the Lilliputians set to work repairing his boat. But when his lies unravel, leaving the little people in big trouble, will Gulliver be able to save the day and get the girl?

If any of the above sounds achingly familiar, it should. Having realised that Jack Black wouldn’t be a fantastic choice to play the heroic sailor of Jonathan Swift’s novels, writers Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller have simply copied the narrative arc of Black’s character in School Of Rock, crossing out the word ‘children’ in the script and replacing it with ‘Lilliputians’.

The big problem with this, of course, is that the plot was pretty much covered the first time round. Black wanders competently through the script, hitting all the beats required of him, but with none of the passion or enthusiasm that made the earlier film such a joy to watch.

The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. The villain of the piece, General Edward Edwardian, is played by Chris O’Dowd, of The IT Crowd fame. While O’Dowd certainly doesn’t embarrass himself in the role, it’s a curious casting choice, and O’Dowd doesn’t really have the presence needed to lend his confrontations with Gulliver any sense of menace.

He does have a few scenes where he gets to flex his comedic muscles, but his role is largely restricted to that of the generic bad guy. Fellow British comedy actors Catherine Tate, Billy Connolly and James Corden appear as members of the Royal Family, but their presence is likely to leave UK audiences baffled – none of them are given anything substantial to do here.

This comes as something of a relief; I don’t know if director Rob Letterman has ever worked with British actors before, but all three deliver their lines in such a bizarrely-stilted fashion that it can only have been a directorial decision.

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The Americans in the cast fare slightly better. Studio 60 star Amanda Peet puts in a likeable enough performance as the bog-standard love interest, and you almost believe that she would feel anything other than boredom and revulsion around Gulliver. Jason Segel, clearly just pleased not to be doing How I Met Your Mother for a few months, gives a good stab at making us sympathetic towards the Lilliputians, and he and Black strike up a believable friendship. The target of his desires is Emily Blunt, who suffers from the same stilted ‘Royal Family acting’ as Connolly et al, but is largely inoffensive.

Of course, the cast could be filled with the finest actors in the land, but it wouldn’t mean anything without a decent script. And sadly, this is far from a decent script.

Stillman and Stoller took the scene from the book in which Gulliver puts out a fire by urinating on it, and used it as the template for the rest of the film. The jokes rarely rise above base level, with highlights including Jack Black in a dress, and Jack Black’s anus falling onto a Lilliputian.

The few genuinely amusing scenes come from swipes at pop culture, with Be Kind Rewind-style recreations of popular films and a series of parody posters for films starring Gulliver in the lead elliciting a few proper laughs.

Gulliver’s Travels is, of course, primarily a children’s film, so I wasn’t exactly expecting Four Lions. But in an audience full of children, there were no more than a dozen or so laughs, instead just a lot of awkward coughing and talking amongst one another.

This is obviously a loose adaptation of the book, but as time goes on it feels like desperation is sinking in. The story of Gulliver’s journey to a land populated by giants is condensed into a five minute sequence which serves merely as a plot point to get Black away from Lilliput so that Darcy can show up, and the scenes in which O’Dowd builds himself a giant robot with which to fight Black feel forced and shoehorned-in at best.

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But the real insult comes in the last ten minutes of the film. I’m not going to spoil it here, just to say that the resolution comes out of nowhere, is absolutely unsatisfying, and makes very little sense as an ending. I had my hands in my head during this segment, and looking around I was not alone. Even the children in the audience seemed as embarrassed as the cast on screen.

The script’s failings are compounded by the bland visuals. The best that can be said about the CGI is that it is competent, and that at no point was I sat thinking “This was done against a blue screen”. But what could’ve been a visual feast simply isn’t. The design of Lilliput is, at best, flat, and no amount of post-production 3D can solve that. The 3D is barely noticeable here. Not for the first time, this is the sort of film where 3D could’ve given the film a real boost, but instead it feels like an unnecessary excuse to wear 3D glasses, which merely added to the discomfort of the experience.

It is a shame that we at Den of Geek have already had to submit our best and worst films of the year, as this would win the worst film award for me hands-down. For the best thing I can say about Gulliver’s Travels is that it promotes the idea of staying at home as a family on Boxing Day instead of spending money at the cinema.

In short, if you refuse to see just one film this year, make that film Gulliver’s Travels.

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1 out of 5