A godawful nightmare adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s classic satire, Rob Letterman’s film is so limited in its resemblance to the novel I’m surprised they even carried the full title. Gulliver, or a more distancing Lemuel, would be the kind of dumb thinking a studio like Fox could be expected to embrace wholeheartedly. And, with Jack Black lending his particular brand of coarse tastelessness to the title character, you’d have expected him to rechristen the character as the more musically resonant “Lemmy”.
The movie flopped in the States, which suggests audiences occasionally can see a turkey coming. Strangely, it did quite well internationally (not enough to make up for its out-of-control budget – who makes a $100m+ movie and has Black star in it?). Either there are a lot of Swift fans out there, or… No, I’m at a loss, actually.
There’s no satire in here, needless to say and zero attempt to even try anything approaching wit. Right from the opening, where Black’s mail room guy is opining how he is one of the little people and those he delivers post to are the big people, you know this is more wrecking ball than sledgehammer in its thematic delicacy. The film sticks to the Lilliputian section of Swift’s book (with a brief interlude in Brobdingnag), but the raison d’être seems to be not-so special effects. Elements match up to the novel; Black pisses out a fire, is accused of treason, faces down an enemy fleet. But all of this is a backdrop to some very laboured comedy and an unconvincing romance plot that propping up the entire sorry sagging structure.
Black didn’t have the balls to ask out Amanda Peet in New York, but now he plays matchmaker to peasant Jason Segel and princess Emily Blunt (with Chris O’Dowd miscast as her hissable suitor and all-round bad guy). The comedy is tiresomely familiar. Black suggests song lyrics as a means to woo her. He also appropriates film plots as examples of his great adventures and has them staged for the town (which is very similar to another Black clunker, Be Kind Rewind). Jack struts through the proceedings in his fallback noisy prick mode. He can be an engaging performer (he’s great in School of Rock, amusing in Tropic Thunder) but asking him to draw on his Tenacious D rock-riffing is an invitation to disaster. Sure enough, the film’s mercifully slender running time is padded out with musical montages and ends with him leading the townsfolk in a cringeworthy song and dance routine. Oh, and Blunt cracks wise with his moronic vernacular. Black’s an embarrassment, but so is the whole film.
The mostly British supporting cast irritate (O’Dowd, Catherine Tate, James Corden) or fail to make an impression (Connolly, Blunt). Still, it could have been worse (unbelievable, I know!) Taylor Lautner was earmarked for Segel’s role originally. And to think, it’s this that prevented Blunt from playing Black Widow.
The wit and intelligence (and, yes, crudity) of Swift is replaced with boorish, banal attempts at humour and nauseous moralising. Who’s responsible? Rob Letterman (director) and Joe Stillman (co-writer) come from the variable Dreamworks animation stable. Nicholas Stoller revitalised The Muppets with Segel, and the two best buds have collaborated a number of times; nothing else they’ve done prepares you for how bad this is. So I blame Fox; given their track record, it seems a safe bet. Far from a snub, the lack of recognition for Swift in the credits should be seen as a blessing in disguise.