Friday, December 24, 2010

Review - Gulliver's Travels

In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels as a fable that used a tale of fantasy and adventure to satirise the society he lived in. In 2010, 20th Century Fox produced Gulliver's Travels as a multi-million dollar 3D family blockbuster in which Jack Black fights a giant robot for no fucking reason whatsoever. How far we have come in almost 300 years, Swift might have mused, and while it may seem unfair to compare a mainstream family movie to a classic literary work, there's still something thoroughly dispiriting about this dreadful offering. There's no reason why a contemporary take on Gulliver's Travels couldn't have been an exciting, imaginative adventure, but that would have required some thought and effort on the part of the filmmakers. Instead we have an all-too-familiar slapdash assemblage of tired gags, haphazard plotting and phoned-in performances, with the film being irretrievably skewed by its need to fit the dubious talents of its leading man.

The biggest problem with Gulliver's Travels is Jack Black and how you respond to the film may depend largely on how you feel about his shtick, because that's all you're going to get from him here. He plays Lemuel Gulliver, another directionless slacker working a dead-end job in the mailroom of newspaper in New York. He has no aspirations beyond his current position, apart from a vague romantic longing for travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet). In a misguided attempt to win her affections, Gulliver applies for a vacancy in her department, and having convinced her of his talents by hastily plagiarising some online articles (Darcy, clearly, is pretty stupid), he is despatched to his first assignment: The Bermuda Triangle.

One splashy CGI storm later, Gulliver awakens on a beach to find himself pinned down my hundreds of tiny people. This is Lilliput, home of the miniature hordes who instantly make Gulliver a prisoner, only to later revere him as a hero when he puts out a fire (by pissing on the flames) and inadvertently defeats an invading army (the cannonballs bounce off his stomach and shatter their ships). Aside from a brief detour in Brobdingnag (where the roles are reversed and Gulliver finds himself trapped by a giant child), Lilliput is where the majority of the story takes place, but the paucity of ideas exhibited by the filmmakers as they try to milk some jokes out of his giant presence is pitiful. The tone is set very early on, when Gulliver falls backwards – arse crack exposed – and lands on an unfortunate Lilliputian. Much of the film's subsequent humour revolves around Gulliver using his real world knowledge to amaze the natives (he gets them to restage scenes from Star Wars and Titanic as scenes from his life), or uses the lyrics from Prince's Kiss to help lowly commoner Jason Segal woo princess Emily Blunt. These are not necessarily bad gags in themselves, but by the time the town of Lilliput is covered by billboards featuring Black recreating well-known posters (imaginatively renamed as Gulliver Chronicles and, er, Gavatar) any comical potential has been bludgeoned into the ground.

The film never displays a spark of life. Every actor (barring Chris O'Dowd, who at least tries to give a real performance) appears bored by the lines they are forced to repeat, with Emily Blunt barely attempting to disguise her disinterest. Above all, the increasingly ineffective Black seems completely bereft of inspiration, with his performance amounting to little more than a tired trawl through the expected motions – a few silly voices and some unnecessary bursts into song. The climax consists of Gulliver leading the Lilliputians in a rendition of War because...well, I suppose it's easier than writing a proper ending, and anyway, after the long fight sequence between Gulliver and Iron Man, Gulliver's Travels has already created the impression of a film that has forgotten what it was supposed to be about in the first place. That is, if anyone involved actually gave a shit about it in the first place.