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Movie review: 'Gulliver's Travels'

The modern world and product placement intrude on Jonathan Swift's tale. Jack Black, seemingly ideal for the part, shrinks from the big role.

December 25, 2010|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Jonathan Swift probably never dreamed of the consumer excess that would elbow its way into the great satire of "Gulliver's Travels" all these centuries later. No doubt he'd have been keen on poking fun at this new world — Swift had a fascination with human failings of the most base sort — but I don't think a three-story Coke can that's washed up on the shores of Lilliput with all the other debris in the latest film adaptation is what he'd have in mind.

Other than product placement opportunities, that debris would primarily be Jack Black, who stars as a travel writer on assignment in the Bermuda Triangle, shipwrecked by a storm, then trussed up and tied down by tiny folk like all the Gullivers before him. With director Rob Letterman ("Shark Tale" and "Monsters vs. Aliens") staying Swift's course, our intrepid traveler's incarceration is followed by trust, friendship and finally understanding as everyone tries to answer that age-old question: Does size matter?

Since this a modern-day telling, the modern world intrudes from beginning to end, and in 3-D. Before landing on Lilliput, Gulliver was at the bottom of a Manhattan publishing giant's ladder, the mailroom guy with a hopeless crush on Amanda Peet's smart, successful beauty with a corner office and travel assignments to dole out. Then comes the storm, the wreck and suddenly Gulliver finds that he is the giant among men. Back home, he tells the little Lilliputians, people call him President the Awesome. So he's got some emotional growing up to do. Awesome.

Well it is and it isn't. Black has the kind of cheeky comic sensibility that should have perfectly suited Gulliver — a straight man if there ever was one with an eye for the absurd. But Black's brio is off — too much here, too little there, only occasionally right.

In the " Shrek" tradition, screenwriters Joe Stillman (one of the multitudes with screenplay credit for "Shrek" and "Shrek 2") and Nicholas Stoller (who rocked a dark comic beat with Russell Brand and "Get Him to the Greek") have packed "Gulliver's" stem to stern with pop culture references. Bermuda Triangle, love triangles, Transformers, Yoda, "Titanic," KISS (as in the band) and Times Square, to name but a few.

But this story is not just about Gulliver. It is about the closed society of Lilliput and the machinations that go on behind those high walls. This Lilliput is modeled even more lightly than Swift's was on a not-jolly-old-England with its royalty and rubes, rigid rules and warring kingdoms. Emily Blunt, who proved such prickly fun in "The Devil Wears Prada," is the tastiest small fry in this town. As Princess Mary, she is the object of affection for commoner Horatio ( Jason Segel) but is already engaged to a pompous twit of a general played with sublime superiority by Chris O'Dowd.

With most of Lilliput fawning over Gulliver, O'Dowd's General Edward is the lone skeptic, determined to cut the big guy down to size. Most of the movie follows their skirmishes when it's not playing with a Cyrano de Bergerac subplot that has Gulliver feeding bad pickup lines to Horatio.

When war comes, so do the big 3-D effects. Picture this: Cannonballs launched from a big armada of Lilli-foes get embedded in Gulliver's bulging bare belly, which functions like a giant shot put in reverse, sending all those balls flying back. That, my friends, is the main reason you paid extra for the glasses.

Production designer Gavin Bocquet ("Kafka" and early "Star Wars") deserves a shout-out for making the big and the small so compatible and yet so distinct. Though the really amazing feat had to be shrinking all those actors down to pint size for the duration of the shoot, unless of course it was the keen eye of director of photography David Tattersall (whose long credit list also includes the first three "Star Wars" films) playing some very cool visual tricks on us.

"Gulliver's Travels" is one of those movies that falls between complete disaster and loads of fun. Mild amusement is probably about right. By the way, when you get to the scene with the palace fire and Gulliver's full bladder, don't blame Black and crew for the bawdy result. Swift was the wizard behind that one.

Box office: 'Gulliver's Travels'

MPAA rating: PG for brief rude humor, mild language and action

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: In general release

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