When a classic work of literature is contemporized, it can be a traumatic experience for viewers--not unlike being shipwrecked and washed up (so to speak) on an island where the people are just one-twelfth your size. Which is kind of how Yao Ming must feel when the NBA star vacations in . . . well, anywhere.
Jonathan Swift published Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (a.k.a. Gulliver's Travels) in 1726. In it, the satirist really nailed European royalty, just as he skewered governments for their corruption and criticized nationalistic differences over religion for their contradictions. But Swift did it using a back-door approach, as a satirist in his day had to, so that his comments were directed at the people in the exotic and fantastic lands that his hero visited. If readers saw similarities between the petty-minded Lilliputians and the British government, for example, was that any fault of his? Same with the Blefuscuns, the Brobdingnagians, the Laputans, or the Houyhnhnms.
As visual and episodic as Gulliver's Travels was, Hollywood has never figured out what to do with it. Thirty-seven years after the French created a four-minute short, Max Fleischer animated his "Gulliver's Travels" (1939), but got him out of Lilliput. Still, it remains the best animated version of the six--which should loom as a challenge for today's hot-shot animations studios. As for live action, prior to this Jack Black comedy we've really only had Ted Danson as Gulliver in a 1996 made-for-TV movie. Apparently Bogie and Brando and Harrison Ford weren't exactly bugging their agents to get them the gig. So what's the problem?
That's hard to say, but I'm guessing that Gulliver's Travels hasn't transferred to film very well because it was originally a tale for adults, not children, and the world has grown more sophisticated. While the educated men and women of Swift's time were willing to believe fantastic stories told by sailors who had visited remote and unknown parts of the world, there's no more uncharted territory now, and if there was, you could use Google Earth to check it out on your computer. And while the themes were adult, much of the satire in this novel was contained in Gulliver's observations rather than the narrative action. Hollywood, of course, is all about storyline and simplification, and if you take away the satire--or make a half-hearted attempt, as writers Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller do in this 2010 film version--you're unfortunately left with a surface-level story for children with only okay special effects.
Director Rob Letterman ("Shark Tale," "Monsters vs. Aliens") even seems to play to that audience, at least in the second half of the film. The first half feels like the typical schmuck's unrequited love story, with Black playing Gulliver, a publishing house mail-room employee with a crush on the travel editor (Amanda Peet as Darcy). But why would someone of her station take an interest in him, a lowly mail-room employee? Uh, it's not the job, guy . . . it's the way you play with "Star Wars" figures and have all the ambition of a plant. It's true. But that's not how the filmmakers are selling it, because how else could they draw a neat parallel between Gulliver's life and the Lilliputians he meets when he fakes a resume to impress Darcy and gets an assignment to sail into the Bermuda Triangle on his own.
Side note: What the heck kind of assignment is that? Wouldn't a magazine at least send a photographer along, or a second boat to film the first?
Never mind. Logic doesn't drive this film. While the first half might be quasi-believable, as nice-guy Gulliver heads off toward the Triangle and, courtesy of something that looks like a cross between a water spout and the inside of a vortex beer bottle, the second half gets just plain bizarre--as if Swift's book didn't have enough in it to entertain. How bizarre, you may wonder? Try the inclusion of a "Star Wars" R-model Transformer that shapes up a lot like the walking human-piloted gizmos in "Avatar" and "District 9." And try an entire section in Brobdingnag where a tiny Jack becomes the tiny plaything of a giant little girl, and long song where we're forced to watch Black bounce around and dance to Edwin Starr's 1969 hit "War" (Huhh, God Gawd, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin').
At least this version of "Gulliver's Travels" scores two points for at least going beyond the Land of Lilliput and its warring neighbor, Blefescu, and at least getting to Brobdingnag, where the people are 72 feet tall, or thereabouts. But while the first half is better than you'd expect, the second half is dumbed-down stupid. Parents should also be warned that despite the PG rating, we see Jack Black's crack (and plenty of cheek, actually)--although it turns out that in the credits there's a Butt Crack Man listed, so it was probably just a plumber they hired as a stunt double. And the famous scene in which Gulliver puts out a fire in the Queen's bedchamber by urinating? Naturally, in this era of gross-out humor, it has to turn into a fire-hose stream that tastelessly blasts the king and others in their faces. (Okay, urine is sterile, but kids don't know that). Rather than a moment of comic relief, it feels more like a metaphor for how the contemporizing detracts from Swift's satire. What remains is nothing for adults, really. And I have to say how sorry I feel for Emily Blunt, who, as the royal daughter of Lilliput, has not nearly the challenges she's used to in a film.
"Gulliver's Travels" comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc that is vivid and bright and full of detail, with black levels that are strong and scenes that look like the eye-candy Black wishes he was. You can see the green screen work, though, in a number of shots, and there are a few instances where we get some atmospheric noise. "Gulliver's Travels" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
There's nothing Lilliputian about the audio, which is big and booming and creates a dynamic soundfield. Sounds travel believably across the room, and there's a healthy thumping bass that doesn't rattle your ribcage in the process. The featured soundtrack is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional audio options in French, Portuguese, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, and Traditional Chinese.
This combo pack comes with a DVD of the film and a Digital Copy--the two best bonus features, as far as I'm concerned. The rest of what's here only confuses me about who the filmmakers thought was their audience. The one game that there is--Gulliver's Foosball Challenge--expects near perfection, or you get that annoying "Try Again" restart. The longest feature is a 20-minute extra in which director Letterman is interviewed by three film school students. Really? Other than that, everything is eight minutes or less, with many of them feeling like pre-release promos. In one, Black plays host of a TV show on the Bermuda Triangle, while Black and Letterman and other cast members talk about Lilliput in another segment. As if the "War" dance that Black does wasn't insipid enough, there's a feature on that too. A pair of Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character segments with Black and co-star Jason Segel offer some joking and some introspection about their characters, while a "gag reel" is just one scene that's not all that funny.
If you're into deleted scenes, there are eight of them here (15 min.), and if you like BD-Live there's a three-minute exclusive dance segment here. Three minutes? Of course it could easily have been added to the disc, but Fox seems stubbornly committed to BD-Live, though no one seems to care.
I did enjoy "Little and Large" (8 min.) more than the fluff I've just mentioned, because seeing how special effects were shot is always of interest to me. And "Down Time" (4 min.) shows the actors talking about what a loose set it was. Red Carpet lovers will enjoy a few interviews with the stars from the World premiere--I did.
Rounding out the bonus features is the theatrical trailer.
This version of "Gulliver's Travels" is strictly for the little people. If you're not a kid, the second half will feel like a trip to the dentist . . . without the laughing gas.