Hallmark and Jim Henson Prods. have teamed up to produce a highly successful miniseries, touted as the first filmed version of “Gulliver’s Travels” to include all four voyages. Along with superb tech work, a dream cast and skillful direction, the key to success was turning the story into a melodrama about reuniting a family. NBC will be able to boast two nights of quality sweeps fare.
Writer Simon Moore cleverly splits the story into two interweaving parts. Nearly half the action is set in England, where Lemuel Gulliver (Ted Danson) narrates his adventures and is committed to a madhouse. This parallel storyline does more than frame the four voyages: What Gulliver faces on his return often mirrors the action from Jonathan Swift’s novel, which is seen in flashbacks. Moore claims this addition was inspired by research that showed Swift had visited England’s first mental hospital. While it might turn Gulliver into too much of a victim, it provides a manageable and entertaining structure.
Director Charles Sturridge (“Brideshead Revisited”) and editor Peter Coulson create seamless transitions between past and present. Absent from England for eight years, Gulliver is presumed dead. His wife, Mary (Mary Steenburgen), and son, Tom (Thomas Sturridge), are under the protection of the sinister Dr. Bates (James Fox). Bates has assumed Gulliver’s medical practice and home, but Mary, who acts as his housekeeper, refuses to marry him.
Gulliver returns in a manic state and begins telling Tom, whom he’s never met, about his nightmarish adventures abroad. Are these memories or fantasies? Either way, they’re well-organized and chronological. Tom is fascinated, while Mary and Bates listen with alarm and annoyance, respectively.
Shipwrecked near the militaristic and miniature kingdom of Lilliput, Gulliver has been captured by two scavengers (Edward Woodward and Nicholas Lyndhurst), tied up and eventually presented to the Emperor (Peter O’Toole). A court favorite there, he has witnessed the corruption and cruelty of Lilliputian society and learned of its senseless war against the neighboring Blefuscans. He tells how he destroyed the Blefuscan fleet and saved the Empress (Phoebe Nicholls), but eventually had to leave.
Eager to get him out of the way, Bates drugs Gulliver and takes him to an asylum, where he continues to recount his tale to doctors.
The second voyage begins with the traveler’s arrival in the land of giants, Brobdingnag, where a farmer (Ned Beatty) and his daughter, Glumdalclitch (Kate Maberly), turns him into a novelty attraction, “The Wee Wonder.” During his time there, he defends the English system, including its greed and hypocrisy, in political debates with the Queen (Alfre Woodard), who presides over a beneficent , socialist economy.
A marvelous scene using animatronics devised by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop shows theminiature Gulliver, covered in honey, being attacked by giant wasps and defending himself with a toothpick.
In the present, Tom finds a diary and a miniature sheep, evidence that his father is telling the truth. Mary visits the hospital where Bates, having burned the diary, plots to keep Gulliver.
Mini’s first night concludes with an ideal cliffhanger, as Gulliver drifts on the ocean beneath a hovering piece of land, the “flying island” of Laputa.
Moore’s abridgment is less successful in the disjointed third hour. The hopelessly impractical intellectuals ruling Laputa seem ripe for ridicule, and Gulliver’s audience, now his fellow inmates, appreciate their foolishness.
He relates further adventures, including encounters with Empress Munodi (Geraldine Chaplin), a pathetic professor trying to extract sunlight from cucumbers (John Gielgud) and the Immortal Gatekeeper (Kristin Scott Thomas). Meanwhile, Tom rescues charred pieces of his father’s diary from the fire, and Bates continues his machinations.
Gulliver’s description of his escape from the palace of the Sorcerer (Omar Sharif) coincides with his becoming more delirious after Bates administers laudanum. Mary and Tom discover Bates’ chicanery, and she demands to be permitted to nurse Gulliver back to health.
But the notion that love can make a family whole and vindicate the madman, or at least the iconoclast, doesn’t seem at all Swiftian.
Danson is a fine choice for this underdog Gulliver, rising to the challenge on the second night in particular.
Steenburgen’s British accent comes and goes, but in other respects she acquits herself well. The always convincing James Fox could play this villain in his sleep, and seems to hold something back from his performance. None of the cameos leaves a lasting impression, but perfs by Edward Fox, John Standing, Warwick Davis and Robert Hardy provide meaningful texture. O’Toole, Woodard and Sharif bring a seasoned sense of mischief to their more substantial roles.
There’s no weak link in the production, overseen by Robert Halmi Sr. and Brian Henson. Special effects are so accomplished and fluid they rarely draw attention to themselves. Portuguese and English locations are ideal, and costumes lavish. The ominous score by Trevor Jones conveys the cynical spirit at the heart of the tale, if not necessarily this telling.