'Gulliver's Travels' Starring Jack Black: A Brobdingnagian Letdown

We had a bet with our friend over whether we could use 'Brobdingnagian' in a headline by year's end

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This Saturday saw the release of Gulliver's Travels, a new film version of Jonathan Swift's classic 18th-century novel. The movie, directed by Rob Letterman, stars Jack Black as the travel writer Lemuel Gulliver, who gets stranded on the island of Lilliput and hangs out with the tiny people who live there. The critical reception has been less than warm, with the plot, cast, and effects all coming in for various amounts of drubbing.

  • Want to Include Some Biting Social Satire? No? Guys?  The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin mourns a missed opportunity. "Since Black's very existence upends everything the Lilliputians know about reality, he is in a privileged position to recreate their world however he sees fit, to serve as a cross between king, god, and monster. Rather than comment on how power corrupts, however, the film has Black re-fashion Lilliputia as the ultimate awesome stoner rec room ... The filmmakers have reduced a definitive satire about the flaws and foibles of human nature into family-friendly sub-Disney pabulum about an affable slacker who finally musters up the courage to ask a pretty girl at work for a date."

  • Not So Much Bad as Puzzling--But Also, Really Bad  "In my travels I've seen Roman ruins, Greek ruins and Byzantine ruins, but I've never seen a ruin like this," writes Joe Morgenstern at The Wall Street Journal. "The 3-D is cheesy (2.2-D at best) the gags are gross (Gulliver urinates on an 18th-century palace to extinguish a fire) and the production abandons all hope of coherence when the hero fights a climactic battle with a giant robot out of 'Transformers.' What were they thinking? What were they smoking? What were they singing on the way to the bank?"

  • 'Unnecessary and Unfunny'  You can sort of tell that Gulliver's Travels ruined Michael O'Sullivan's Christmas. Writing in The Washington Post, O'Sullivan offers mild spoilers: "After extinguishing a raging fire by urinating on it--and, collaterally, on several Lilliputians--[Gulliver is] quickly declared a hero. (Just imagine that scene. On second thought, don't. If it sounds funny to you, you'll probably love the one where Gulliver accidentally sits on a Lilliputian after losing his pants. I can't do it justice in a family newspaper. But I will tell you there's a cast credit for a character described only as 'Butt-crack man.')"

  • Dear Jack Black, Please Stop Taking These Roles  Wesley Morris at The Boston Globe calls the movie "a migraine inducement that you'd think Jack Black had gotten out of his system years ago. Yet he still finds an excuse to wear a blazer and shorts and fling his bodily orb like Angus Young on Guitar Hero night at the neighborhood bar ... Hasn't Jack Black the stoned slacker already matured into Jack Black the adult? Not satisfactorily enough, it seems."

  • Jonathan Swift Weighs In  A. O. Scott at The New York Times offers a review in the form of an imagined e-mail from Swift, who notes bemusedly that the film "converts my great Satire into a gaudy, puerile Toy. My avowed purpose in composing that text, as any swot who has suffered the Duty and Dullness rampant in our Schools must know, was to employ my modest pen as a scourge against human Folly and the vanities of the Age. Having deemed itself unable to defeat those foes, this rendition of 'Gulliver's Travels' chuses rather to join them." [Note from the Wire: You really need to read this review in full.]

  • Aw, It's Not That Bad  Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times gives one of the more sympathetic readings. "I want to explain who 'Gulliver's Travels' is for, and who it might not be for," Ebert writes:

One person it is definitely for is Gloria DeMent, the 84-year-old grandmother who wrote AP film critic Christy Lemire in horror after spending $96 to take four generations of her family to see "The Nutcracker in 3-D." She wrote: "It broke my heart when we left the theater that my little great-granddaughters (ages 5-13) had sad little, confused faces." Believe me, Auntie Glo, there would have been smiles on those faces after this movie ... Do you think her great-grandchildren are going to be sitting there, saying, "You can see that's done with green screen?" I don't think so. They're gonna be saying, "Thanks, Grandma Glo! This is ever so much better that that scary 'Nutcracker' movie! There isn't a single Holocaust reference anywhere in it!"

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