A classic ready-made for the era of big-budget 3D spectacle gets the least classy treatment imaginable in “Gulliver’s Travels,” a loose, lowest-common-denominator retelling of Jonathan Swift’s mock travelogue that drops a giant loser in the land of the little people. Rather than exploiting the scenario’s obvious cinematic possibilities, director Rob Letterman permits Jack Black’s already larger-than-life persona to dwarf everything else in sight, letting this sad-sack Gulliver fulfill whatever fantasies he was denied in the real world — an angle more appealing to disenfranchised 7-year-olds than for those buying the tickets. Fox has big hopes, but should expect only medium-sized returns.
Where the source novel used wit — and a fair amount of off-color humor — to comment on the attitudes and behaviors of its time, this offputting update offers no such insights. Instead, it lifts a few choice details from the first book of Swift’s four-part satire (including an incident in which Gulliver extinguishes a fire by emptying his bladder on the blaze) and rounding out the rest with sheer silliness.
Black’s lovable-slob shtick carried “School of Rock” and subsequent kiddie fare, but his Gulliver comes across as considerably less appealing. A self-absorbed manchild whose lack of hygiene is matched only by his lack of ambition, Gulliver toils in the mailroom of a Gotham newspaper, where he harbors a not-so-secret crush on travel editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet). Too nervous to ask her out, he instead accepts an assignment traveling to the Bermuda Triangle, where strange weather conditions (a vortex that reps the first of the film’s mediocre visual effects) transport him to the land of Lilliput.
Gulliver awakens tied to the ground by men no taller than toy soldiers in a grotesque parody of the book’s most iconic scene, one that presents the pot-bellied Black looking like a beached whale amid the tiny Lilliputians. Rather than modernizing the race of mini-men to poke fun at our own small-mindedness, screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller present them as broad parodies of the 18th-century court, with the country’s hapless King Theodore (Billy Connolly) and sniveling Gen. Edward (Chris O’Dowd) engaged in ongoing war with their equally ridiculous rivals, the Blefuscians.
Though distrusted at first, Gulliver proves invaluable in defending the kingdom, putting that blubber to good use deflecting microscopic cannonballs. As a reward, Gulliver is granted full use of the Lilliputian workforce, which he employs in the most self-serving manner possible within the bounds of a PG rating: re-creating the glories of his Gotham lifestyle to suit his newly inflated ego, which involves the little folks constructing everything from a Sphinx-scale La-Z-Boy chair to a miniature version of Times Square featuring Gulliver-themed billboards.
If this spin on Swift’s tale sounds disappointingly cartoonish, that conceivably owes to the combined sensibilities of Black and director Letterman, a veteran of such DreamWorks Animation pics as “Shark Tale” and “Monsters vs. Aliens” (the latter involving a similar challenge juggling characters of wildly different scales). Like a number of animation helmers before him, Letterman struggles in the live-action medium. He seems overwhelmed by the visual effects challenges, clumsily moving from scene to scene and unable to marshal unity among the performances. Black runs wild opposite O’Dowd’s more mannered comic turn, while co-stars Emily Blunt and Jason Segel grapple awkwardly with a distracting romantic subplot.
The story grows more desperate as it goes on, squeezing in a visit to the super-sized land of Brobdingnag and an inexplicable robot battle en route to a goofy cover of Edwin Starr’s anti-Vietnam anthem “War.” With its wacky accents and silly shenanigans, “Gulliver’s Travels” could have been “Time Bandits” for a new generation, but instead feels like “Attack of the 50-Foot Couch Potato.”
Although a tilt-shift opening credits sequence cleverly makes Manhattan look like a scale model, the rest of David Tattersall’s lensing is bland, relying heavily on a “DualMoCo” camera system, which enabled such innovations as the sight of a three-inch man disappearing inside Black’s butt crack. Rather than enhancing the dramatic size differences, the addition of 3D merely draws attention to pic’s heavy use of greenscreen.
Fox bolsters the feature’s anemic running time with a three-minute short, “Scrat’s Continental Crack-Up,” which amusingly reveals how the “Ice Age” squirrel’s insatiable acorn lust split apart Pangaea.