"Gulliver's Travels" relies too much on effects

Wed Dec 22, 2010 7:26pm EST
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Increasingly, studios are slapping 3D on movies not to add entertainment value but to conceal a lack of dimension in a movie's story or characters. While not the worst in recent 3D films, "Gulliver's Travels" is more gimmicky than a crackling good yarn.

The film feels rushed and slight at every point. Thanks to inspired clowning by Jack Black and a solid cast that breathes life into an inert story, the movie works as a moderately entertaining children's movie. Opening domestically on Christmas Day via Fox, "Gulliver's Travels" should enjoy a brief burst of box-office activity.

The great irony about Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel, "Gulliver's Travels," is that librarians and schoolteachers have forever relegated to the shelves of children's books what is, in fact, a scathing moral satire of the corrupt English society of his time and mankind's proclivity for irrationality and vice over common sense and virtue. (Mark Twain's equally satiric, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," suffers a similar fate.) There is something about the comical idea of a normal-sized human striding through a kingdom of tiny people -- an image derived entirely from Gulliver's first voyage to Lilliput -- that consigns his literary masterpiece to the world of elves, trolls and fairy princesses.

The latest version, which comes from several filmmakers with backgrounds in animation, casts Black as a shy, ambition-challenged mailroom clerk for a New York newspaper. This opening setting is a nostalgic one, mind you, as its busy newsroom is crowded with employed journalists, and a travel editor occupies an office fit for a managing editor.

Black's Gulliver has a long-standing crush on that travel editor (Amanda Peet) but can never bring himself to ask her out. Goaded by a colleague into approaching her, he winds up not with a date but with a travel assignment.

That takes him to the Bermuda Triangle, where a storm washes him into an inter-dimensional portal that carries him to Lilliput, where remnants of Swift's tale take over. The kingdom is made to look somewhat like 18th century England and features mostly British actors.

The tiny Lilliputians struggle to imprison this "giant," but when he escapes, he performs heroic deeds that save the people. Among these displays of bravery, one actually borrowed from the original story, is the day when he puts out a fire in the royal palace by urinating on the flames.

Emboldened by his newly acquired size, Gulliver now exaggerates his past, drawing on film culture to cast himself as the victorious hero of stories ranging from Star Wars to Titanic. This kernel of an idea -- a small man suddenly talking big -- never develops beyond a few gags involving contemporary movies, however. In the tiresome manner of most studio-generated comedies, its protagonist must undergo a trajectory that confronts him with his character flaws and improves his defective personality.   Continued...

<p>Cast members Jack Black (L), Jason Segel (C) and Emily Blunt pose at the premiere of "Gulliver's Travels" at the Grauman's Chinese theatre in Hollywood, California December 18, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>