Big-studio kids movies have become, for the most part, so aggressively shrill and unfunny and loaded with soon-to-be-dated references and cookie-cutter scripted and patronizing and tedious, that “Gulliver’s Travels” hardly registers as an affront to good taste or good humor. Even its mediocrity is mediocre.
Jack Black – the most pasteurized, castrated, and utterly bland version of Jack Black yet presented to a wide audience – stars as Lemuel Gulliver, a slacker who’s spent years in the mailroom of a New York City newspaper because he’s lacked the gumption to try for something better or even to ask travel editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet) out on a date. (Side note: Black and Peet previously starred together in “Saving Silverman,” and if her character name was a conscious homage, it’s worth noting that no movie should make its viewers wish they were watching something else instead. And if the audience would rather be watching something as wretched as “Saving Silverman,” all is lost.)
Armed with some plagiarized articles, Gulliver applies for and gets a full-time travel-writing gig. (Pause while anyone who has worked for a newspaper over the last two decades rolls his or her eyes.) His first assignment takes him to the Bermuda triangle, where his boat gets sucked up into a giant water column.
Gulliver awakes on the beach of Lilliput, whose army of tiny soldiers attempt to stake him down to the ground. The relatively giant Gulliver fights back but is eventually subdued by General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) and thrown into the dungeon alongside Horatio (Jason Segel, looking puffy and bored out of his skull); Gulliver’s fellow prisoner was incarcerated for pitching woo at the princess (Emily Blunt), who’s promised to the general.
When a neighboring kingdom sets Lilliput’s castle on fire, Gulliver puts it out in a manner that you can probably guess but would have expected to be too cheap and tasteless a gag for a film aimed at children. You would be wrong. Now that Gulliver’s a hero, he lies and tells the Lilliputians that he’s the president of the United States, and he restages sequences from “Star Wars,” “Titanic,” and “Avatar” as though they were chapters from his own life. (Viewers of “Gulliver’s Travels” who get bored – and many will – can entertain themselves by guessing what movies would have been referenced had this film not been produced by Fox.)
You can pretty much guess what happens from here – Gulliver is exposed as a phony, the bad guy takes over, the manchild must prove himself, tons of CG gags about tiny people – but you probably didn’t guess that a giant robot would play a key role in the film. Yes, a giant robot. In “Gulliver’s Travels.” Because – like the carriage chase that Robert Zemeckis plopped into last year’s “A Christmas Carol” – these centuries-old classic tales cry out for loud and obnoxious 21st century special effects.
Black has pretty much long since established that he’ll do anything for a buck, but “Gulliver’s Travels” wastes the talents of Segel, Peet (thanks to “Please Give,” she has the honor of being in one of the year’s best films as well as one of the worst), Blunt, and the exceedingly funny British TV star Catherine Tate, who gets Brobdingnagian servings of nothing to do here. Since he’s playing the villain and spared much of what the script (by Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller) considers to be comedy, O’Dowd winds up as the film’s MVP by default.
2010 began with the desecration of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and it ends with Jack Black (who also executive-produced) blowing his nose into Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” The only upside to this movie becoming a hit would be the green-lighting of a movie version of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” wherein the cast of the “Baby Geniuses” movies gets eaten. And then we could flambé the studio exec that green-lit this snoozer.
"Gulliver's Travels" opens nationwide on Dec. 25.
Duralde is the author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas" available on Amazon.com and the DVD Editor of Movieline. He's also written for MSNBC and the Rotten Tomatoes Show.