‘Gulliver’s Travels’ movie review: goofy Jack Black update of the Swift story

Jack Black wears a big ol’ goofy grin throughout the duration of Gulliver’s Travels, a grin indicative of the film as a whole. Lightweight, dumb, and short enough to remain tolerable, this version of the classic Jonathan Swift story bears little resemblance to the original, nor does it have many merits of its own, but it does have a certain charm. Plus, it’s hard to hate something that never really takes itself seriously.

Black plays mailroom employee Lemuel Gulliver (he’s only referred to as ‘Gulliver’ onscreen), who cuts & pastes from Wikipedia, Time Out, and Frommer’s in order to impress lovely travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet) and land a gig as a travel writer (straight plagiarism, really?) 

Of course, swiping text off Wikipedia is sure to land you a job at a major New York publication, and so Gulliver is off to his first destination, the Bermuda Triangle.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Gulliver somehow winds up in Swift’s Lilliput (the exact circumstances of which are less than fully convincing), the island nation made of tiny humans about one-twelfth the size of a normal man. The tiny people are technologically advanced, however, and they’re able to chain up ‘The Beast’ and throw him in a cave with fellow prisoner Horatio (Jason Segel).

But Gulliver can be useful, the Lilliputians discover, during a sequence involving the resourceful way a large man can put out a tiny fire. And then during a battle with warring nation Blefuscia, during which Gulliver absorbs tiny cannonballs into his stomach and then pumps them out, destroying enemy battleships (you might question the behavior of these tiny cannonballs, which stick into Gulliver’s flesh instead of piercing it like bullets.)

The Lilliputians are rounded out by a delightful supporting cast, which includes Billy Connolly as the King, Catharine Tate as his Queen, Emily Blunt as their daughter, and Chris O’Dowd as the General as makeshift villain. 

Throughout the film, they’re all wearing the same shit-eating grin as Black, who sets the tone with his complete lack of conviction. You can feel the screenplay try to inject drama into the proceedings, but the actors steadfastly refuse: they’re just here to have fun. It works out better for us that way, too.

Director Rob Letterman previously worked in animation (Shark Tale, Monsters vs. Aliens), which more than obvious here, each actor playing loud and broad; he also injects a cartoonish warmth into the film that seems to defy criticism. 

Screenplay is by Joe Stillman (Beavis & Butthead) and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall); while the majority of the film rarely rises above ‘amusing’, there are a few lines here and there that get laughs.

There’s a good (great?) movie waiting to be made from Swift’s original story; it wasn’t quite the 1939 Max Fleischer cartoon, or the live-action 1960 film, or the TV movie with Ted Danson. It sure ain’t this one, either. 

But taken for what it is, this Gulliver’s Travels is light and breezy and short enough (80 minutes) to prove painless for most parents, while kids should enjoy it as something akin to the Night at the Museum films (and without the heavy-handed melodrama, it’s better than either of those.)

Before the film, be sure to catch Scrat’s Continental Crack-up, another Ice Age short featuring the lovable saber-toothed squirrel and his pesky acorn.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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