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'Gulliver's Travels' a Fantastic Voyage

TV review: The adaptation of Swift's book is a collaboration that is high on skill and imagination.

February 03, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The fanciful odyssey of literature's best-known frequent voyager becomes four hours of spectacular entertainment via NBC's "Gulliver's Travels," a rich, witty, satisfying adaptation that reshapes Jonathan Swift's 1726 book for film while preserving its tone and spirit and much of the original story omitted from earlier movie versions.

Mentioning Gulliver evokes the signature image of a normal-sized man (hereafter to have Ted Danson's face) on his back, tied down and surrounded by curious six-inch beings known as Lilliputians. Yet this newest recounting, lavishly filmed in England and Portugal, journeys with ship's surgeon Dr. Lemuel Gulliver far past the island of Lilliput to Brobdingnag, Laputa and the lands of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, restoring nearly the entire travelogue of tongue-twisters that Swift created in his satire.

In adapting this work for two nights of TV, Simon Moore does some major creating of his own by having Gulliver (Danson) wearily return to England after many unbelievably odd years at sea to find that his wife, Mary (Mary Steenburgen); young son, Tom (Thomas Sturridge); house and medical practice have been usurped by haughty, scheming Dr. Bates (James Fox).

After an earful of Gulliver's incredible travel tales, the snotty Bates labels him mad and has him locked away in Bedlam Asylum, where Gulliver's disbelieved babble about the exotic locales he saw and his delusionary flashbacks converge into a single, sleek narrative.

Although unlikely to have won Swift's endorsement, Moore's dramatic structure is a cohesive device that succeeds almost without exception, in part because he and director Charles Sturridge are masters of seamless, artful juxtaposition. Their collaboration is high on skill and imagination, and production designer Roger Hall, effects-meister Tim Webber and costumer Shirley Russell contribute their own wondrous touches to this partnership.

Moore loses it only once, in jaggedly grafting onto his own parallel plot a yahoo finale at Bedlam (centering on young Tom) that is insufferably trite and hammy. But not sufficiently so to diminish the many pleasures that precede it.

Among them is Danson, even though his Gulliver is an acquired taste and his acting itself Lilliputian initially. Moreover, his American accent at first seems a bit off stride with the cast's numerous Britons (even Danson's wife, Steenburgen, acquires a high-end British accent). And he sounds even sillier when occasionally injecting a token "bean" for "been," as if suddenly remembering Gulliver isn't Californian.

Yet gradually Danson really gets into the part and becomes a very persuasive, passionate Gulliver, ranging from awe and wonder to terror, and from mental chaos to clarity (some would call it cynicism) in contrasting homely human behavior with the reason and virtuousness of the equine Houyhnhnms. It's a society where horses are vastly smarter and purer of thought than their segregated beasts of burden, the dirty, grubby human-esque Yahoos. No wonder Gulliver adores this spot. It's idyllic--unless, of course, you're a Yahoo.

"Gulliver's Travels" is also brightened by high-wattage cameos. Peter O'Toole is deliciously broad as Lilliput's powdered clown of an emperor, fawned over by an entourage of stuffed shirts and cloying poseurs in the land of miniatures where Swift's physician-sailor is first stranded.

In a realm of 80-foot giants, Alfre Woodard's Queen of Bobdingnag purses her lips in annoyance before applying "odious" to the English society described by her new court jester, the minuscule Gulliver. Shashi Kapoor is droll buffoonery as a ruler of "breathtaking intellect" on a flying island whose subjects have their heads in the clouds, both literally and figuratively.

Below on the ground, in a pompous academy devoted to valueless research, Gulliver later bumps into John Gielgud as the obsessed Professor of Sunlight, whose life's work is a cucumber study.

All of it is grand fun--many laughs for everyone, a stunning visual display for youngsters and still, after all these years, a serious message or two for adults.

* "Gulliver's Travels" airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4).

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