If I may quote the great Montgomery Burns, “I’m no art critic, but I know what I hate… And I don’t hate this.” These were the words that echoed through my mind as I watched Gulliver’s Travels, the critically panned box office bomb that briefly snuck into theaters last December and then swiftly suck right back out. I don’t hate it, and I really am an art critic. That’s about as nice a compliment as you can pay to this fluffy piece of mediocrity, which came out on Blu-Ray this week. It’s an inoffensive trifle that might be good for a quick family-friendly rental, but beyond that it’s probably best ignoring unless everything else in your Netflix queue is out of stock.
Gulliver’s Travels is based, incredibly loosely, on the classic novel by Jonathan Swift, in which Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black) finds himself journeying through a series of fantastical lands which each had something interesting to say about the human condition. This new edition spends the bulk of its svelte 85-minute running time in the Gulliver’s first destination, the land of Lilliput, where he stands at least 50 feet taller than anybody else in the country. He goes a little mad with power for a while. Well actually, let’s not go nuts there… He doesn’t so much go mad with power as wallow in crapulence. After an initial period of imprisonment he becomes a local hero, and uses his notoriety – along with a hefty helping of boastful lies – establishes himself as a God amongst men. Naturally, he has a lesson to learn: don’t lie.
That’s… Let’s be honest, that’s a pretty flimsy moral to force into the classic piece of literature, and it’s kind of tacked on at that. Gulliver works in the mailroom of a posh newspaper but is afraid to ask out the girl of his dreams, played by Amanda Peet (who is, in all fairness, the girl of just about everybody’s dreams). So he plagiarizes some travel articles to gain her attention and gets himself an assignment to the Bermuda Triangle. You can imagine where it goes from there. Gulliver’s a likable fellow, thanks in large part to Jack Black’s uncanny ability to be Jack Black, so the awkward setup to the story is largely forgivable. Once he gets to Lilliput the film mostly revolves around a series of sight gags in which he puts the Lilliputians to work as a live-action Foosball table or a live-action Guitar Hero game (one of many Guitar Hero appearances in the film, resulting in a particularly distracting case of product placement). If you think that’s funny you’re clearly in the target demographic.
If you’re going to waste a cast you might as well waste a great cast. I imagine that was the motto for Gulliver’s Travels, in which highly respectable actors like Emily Blunt (Young Victoria), Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Billy Connolly (Boondock Saints) and Catherine Tate (Dr. Who) play most of the smaller roles, literally and figuratively. Connolly in particular appears to be having fun, but for the most part these impressive performers are trapped in a clichéd family film with little to do. Emily Blunt in particular seems a little lost in many of her scenes. There’s an early bit in which she’s about to be kidnapped by an invading army where her reactions are so rote and false that I thought it was a plot point, like maybe she really wanted to be kidnapped. Apparently I was giving Gulliver’s Travels too much credit. It looks like they filmed a blocking rehearsal and just kept it in the film.
But as I said, I don’t hate Gulliver’s Travels. It’s an uninspired film but some of the gags are mildly amusing (I like the bit where Gulliver puts on a play based on his own life, which includes scenes from The Empire Strikes Back and Titanic, even if it does feel pretty reminiscent of Reign of Fire), the performances are all likable if unimpressive and the overall tone is one of harmless bemusement. It’s a decent distraction for little kids but unlikely to enrich their lives in any way.
That mediocrity extends to the Blu-Ray edition of the film, which boasts a decent but unimpressive transfer. Since most of the visual effects are intended as throwaway gags they don’t appear to have been made with an excessive eye for detail, which would be fine but most of the film revolves around them, resulting in a generally artificial look for the film which doesn’t seem to benefit from the high-definition treatment. The surround sound offered is also pretty lackluster, offering rich, loud booms during the sporadic action sequences but a fairly front-heavy experience throughout the bulk of the movie. Gulliver’s Travels also boasts a bevy of special behind-the-scenes features, but I can’t anticipate anyone being passionate enough about this middling film to spend any time with them.
Gulliver’s Travels is a mildly entertaining film with a fair number of amusing jokes and a lot of bad ones. It’s got a charming cast of characters who have nothing to do. It’s got an innocent message tacked onto a story that doesn’t quite support it. It’s a 5 out of 10 if ever I’ve seen one… and now I certainly have.
Crave Online Rating (Movie): 5 out of 10
Crave Online Rating (Blu-Ray): 7 out of 10