RIORI Vol 3, Installment 26: Rob Letterman’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (2010)


 The Players…

Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Chris O’Dowd, with Amanda Peet and Billy Connelly.

The Story…

When slacker mail room clerk Lemuel Gulliver want to impress his crush, the newspaper’s travel writer, he tries his hand as a travel writer himself. She gives him a “fluff assignment” about goings on in the Bermuda Triangle, and not wanting to lose his chance Gulliver jumps at it. If only to impress a girl.

After getting sucked into the weirdness that is the Triangle, Gulliver washes ashore on the isle of Lilliput, populated by tiny people who are none too happy now having a giant on their hands. Not to mention Gulliver unhappy in wondering how he’s going to get home again.

There’s a girl waiting, y’know.

The Rant…

Hey. Here were go with another flaky cinematic adaptation of a famous, if not revered author. If only for one book. Well, it worked for Dalton Trumbo.

Aaaand here come the Obscurity Police, ready to club me with the latest Grey installment.

*wards them off with a battered copy of Gravity’s Rainbow; screaming*

That’s better. Pynchon. Works every time. Now then:

I’d be remiss in my duties to not mention that I failed to mention that the last installment covering The Raven was serendipitous. At the time of that post, it was Edgar Allan Poe’s 207th birthday, spot on. I didn’t know at the time. It was a crummy gift (even though the movie was okay. Just okay), but how appropriate and lucky I took apart a film loosely based on Poe’s works on his b’day.

Well  thought so.

Speaking of loose adaptations, betcha most of you read Jonathan Swift’s satirical opus Gulliver’s Travels back in high school English. If you were me, instead of studying the book…let’s not go there. Even if you never read Swift’s novel, you probably know about the part where our hapless hero washes ashore on the island of Lilliput populated by tiny, tiny people. The image of the now giant Gulliver strapped down, dozens of micro people flittering around the giant has become part of pop culture. Not to mention an eternal metaphor for…something.

Sure, the book was full of cool adventures, but most readers had to be reminded that Travels was intended as a satire. Social commentary couched in silliness. When I was conscious in class, I learned that the conflict between the Lillputians and their enemies the equally tiny Blefuscudians, which Gulliver became entangled, was the result of a disagreement of the proper way to crack an egg. Absurd.


It’s true; read it. The Lilliput/Belfescu conflict was supposed to represent the acrimony between the UK and France over…nothing really. At the end of the day, nothing vital. Just culture clash, really. So went Gulliver’s other travels, Swift flipping the bird to stuffy British society between tending to his clergy with his day job as a minister.

*more crickets*

It’s true; read it. That metaphor is classic (not the clergy thing), which is why the tale has inspired countless movie versions, both live-action and animated. I remember as a kid a live-action version of the story starring the unimpeachable Peter O’Toole as our titular adventurer. It only tackled the Lilliput arc (as most have done), but it was a great version. I only found out later—when I woke up—after reading the book how close to the book the moviemakers got. And it didn’t stop with the O’Toole version and now the Jack Black movie. Gulliver’s Travels has been adapted to TV, film and even radio thirteen times. Told you it was a potent tale, literary accuracy or no.

Where am I going with all this you may ask, as well as where are my slippers? Despite the fact Gulliver is a delicious tale to reinvent, the satirical element—the book’s original selling point—often gets lost in the shuffle. I’ve found that only for satire to work there needs to be just enough humor to balance any rancor, not matter how tame. I’m not talking a Carlin screed here (even though he was able to temper his ire with quieter, sillier bits), but I only think Gulliver on film works best when there is low-level silliness, not fart jokes and our hero pissing on things.

Wait, what?

Oh. Well, I did say when I first actually read the book…nothing I should mention here…

Terminally stuck in the mail room at the New York Tribune, lowly slacker Lemuel Gulliver (Black) gets a fire under his ass from his new boss. Gulliver’s rudely informed that he’s a going-nowhere loudmouth, and’ll probably be stuck in the trenches forever unless he mans up and gets a pair. Y’know, make a first move.

That almost being a dare, Gulliver hits up on his crush Darcy (Peet), the resident travel writer for a date. Instead he stumbles into getting assigned a fluff assignment to Bermuda to investigate a story about its infamous Triangle. Hey, whatever works.

So with passport in hand, a mediocre at best command of being a reporter, Gulliver sets sail into the heart of the matter. The heart turns out to be a typhoon that scoops him ashore on the tiny island of Lilliput with its equally tiny denizens. By accident, Gulliver is now the mountain of a man he should’ve aspired to be in the first place. And it fits him as well as being strapped to the earth against his will.

Might as well be back in the mail room and that “Guitar Hero” session.

Okay, so the whole satire angle went totally out the window with this version of Gulliver. But this was supposed to be a family film, so we gotta dumb it down a bit. Maybe a lot. But as stupid as the source material could be stripped, this Gulliver could’ve been a lot worse. You’re in for a typical Jack Black ad-libbed quip fest. What else did you expect? Bertolt Brecht’s Baal on ice?

*even more crickets*

Wake up. It’s almost lunchtime.

Even though Black is known, if not infamous for playing randy, snarky assh*les, his schtick actually marries well to a “family” flick like this one. The man’s bread-and-butter is playing overgrown kids after all. It’s just odd here in Gulliver to not hear any blue language (kind of a relief actually). We got Black making an attempt to play it straight—be the everyman—and try and be relatable rather than repellant. I ain’t saying Black as an actor is repellent. He’s terribly amusing, if not hilarious in the proper film (e.g.: High FidelitySchool Of RockTropic Thunder, etc), but I think we’re all kinda used to the sh*tstorm he brings to his films. That’s a complement, BTW.

Toned down Black (just enough) is pretty palatable. Gulliver features Jack Black Lite. Sure, his character is an obnoxious clown, but he also manages an air of innocent sweetness. Really. Sweet Jeebus he comes across as likable here. I know. I’m just as shocked as you. Hell, it’s a family film, and the schlumpy dude is a big kid. A very big kid in Lilliput anyway. He’s got a sweetness here in a chummy sense, not sugary. If it weren’t for Black—I can’t believe I’m saying this—there’d be very little for this movie to hang on to. Sure, the supporting cast (especially Segel) is entertaining and goofy, but without Black’s left-handed charm to grab onto, everything would descend into slapstick. For almost 90 minutes.

Speaking of timing, I must talk about the technical sh*t at work here. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to smashing to other stuff in due course. I just can’t resist a good segue.

Gulliver is a pretty straightforward movie. Not a lot twists and turns, at least none that would blow the kiddies’ minds. But against that the pacing is too swift. I know this is supposed to be a family-friendly flick, quick enough to battle against bathroom trips and the youngin’s attention spans can’t be taxed too much, but give the editor an Ativan, will ya? Rapid fire cuts and leaps can really take its toll on anyone no longer Santa Claus eligible. What I’m sayin’ is give the ‘rents a break already. Gulliver clocks in at an efficient 85 minutes; I’d actually appreciate a few more to calm sh*t down. But that’s just me (a parent, thank you).

A few other things: much to my surprise, this fluffy little film was pretty faithful to the source material. Some of the notable things anyway. The loopy life of Lemuel and his hard-on for Darcy is out of Hollywood, but several of the (mostly) humorous bits were left intact. For instance? The literal piss takes. At first I was cheesed at sticking in a schtick like that, but it was in canon. Really. So was the boat-tugging in the battle at sea scene, and of course the iconic Gulliver-strapped-down bit. Overall I was surprised how many details director Letterman included in his movie spun from Swift’s tale, cleverly applying the size-difference in nifty ways. The coffee montage was great I have to admit, as was the beach house thing. Usually when a book churns through the spin cycle—especially a family movie—a lot of crap gets excised in favor of poop jokes and/or extraneous, Cheez-Whiz dramatics. Don’t misunderstand, Gulliver has its fair share of poop, but even minor concessions made to the source material against Black’s shenanigans it seems almost…respectful. I like that.

Back to the cast. Even though our females leads, Blunt and Peet (which sounds like a home and garden chain) are not much more than wallpaper. Peet and Black have no believable chemistry even with the short screen time, and Blunt is a wooden bodice. Girls, who needs ’em? There is a buddy movie undertone to Gulliver. Y’know, guys and chicks and how to nab ’em. Sure, it’s tired, but pairing Black with mini-Segal makes it work somehow. It was amusing to see Segel playing it straight for once as the lovelorn, earnest Horatio. And Black being the wingman made it feel okay. A kind of dopey okay, but harmless enough. I’ll give it a pass.

O’Dowd however has nothing earnest going for his Admiral Edward. He was such a rich ham and quietly stole the show. What amazed me (and still does; can’t explain it) is that for all Edward’s stuffy, effete Britishness toeing the line of stereotype—think John Cleese meets Margaret Thatcher. Okay, don’t—his performance alternates between brash and all three Stooges. Snicker worthy, not laugh out loud, but enough of those snickers throughout the film to leave an impression. He’s really fun to hate, too. Always a good thing when it comes to booing and hissing the snotty bad guy.

Back the tech stuff again. The only real issue I took with Gulliver‘s delivery is when the third act finally rolls around. Here we descend into outright silliness. I kinda alluded to you watch a film like this with the proper mindset. Read: card-carrying goofball Jack Black as giant; put away your SAG cards. Like all proper three act plays, here’s where it all comes to a head. A very silly head, and I done like’d it. Sue me. Remember, family film. “Epic” showdown with the baddie? Check. Guys get the girls (not matter how superfluous they are here)? Check. Jack Black murdering a rock song with lots of air guitar? Um, duh. F*cking inevitable. He might’ve even done it in that indie drivel Jesus’ Son I covered back during the Ice Age. Oh, well.

In any case, despite—or maybe because of—Letterman’s straight arrow execution, there were enough tweaks and winks slid into his imagining of Gullver to get the audience scratching their collective chins. Amusing is the watchword here, and it was. Cinematic merit? With Jack Black? You’re really asking this? Pishaw. Gulliver decidedly wasn’t a popcorn flick. Gummi Bear flick is more apt.

Okay, class dismissed. Next week, Beckett’s take on Hansel & Gretel. Whatever you do, don’t eat the downspouts.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, with reservati. Yeah, yeah. Shaddap. Cynical snot like me digging fluff like this? What? You don’t like Gummi Bears? Philistine.

Stray Observations…

  •  “…You’re never really going to get bigger than this.” Foreshadow much?
  • Hey. Whatever happened to “Guitar Hero” anyway? I mean, sure it wasn’t in canon. But still. Guess Swift was a Wii kinda guy.
  • “Inside the castle voice, please.” I’m using that from now on with the kid.
  • Does adding Coffee-Mate to the filter actually work? (later) Nope.
  • Need a flexible, inoffensive British dude as authority figure? Get me Billy Connelly!
  • “But Vice President Yoda can run things without me for a while.” That is a line any sane person would never expect to ever hear in a film with the proper prescription.
  • Prince. Works every time. Ever see Pretty Woman? Scored Roberts three grand.
  • Mini, mini Kiss!
  • Segel’s accent is great, and doesn’t betray his usual patois. It enhanced his character really. Go fig.
  • “Gulliver, you work in the mail room.” “Not today I don’t.” Almost badass, for a family film anyway.

Next Installment…

London comes tumbling down in a Reign Of Fire. The fault lies with the dragons. And Christian Bale. Curse you, Bale.

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