By Scott Martin
Gulliver’s Travels, USA, 2010
Directed by Rob Letterman
In an effort to update and, in more than one sense of the word, modernize Jonathan Swift’s timeless novel, director Rob Letterman and his screenwriters Nicholas Stoller and Joe Stillman have crafted something unique, though distressingly blank. Here we have not the classic, epic story with which many have grown up, but rather a focus on the themes and ideas portrayed in Swift’s writing, and in a few underrated adaptations from days past. The story has always been a meditation on the measure of a man. The 1996 television version starring Ted Danson seemed to lose a bit of the magic of the novel in its translation from text to screen, but stories like this one are hard to tell; damn near impossible to get exactly right, if you consider the vision of the literature to be “exact.” With this one, though, starring the affable Jack Black, the sincere-beyond-all-reason Jason Segel, and the always wonderful Emily Blunt, we as the audience are treated to what contends to define “family feature.” It’s a holiday romp through a strange land, and it has enough vulgar humor to keep even the oldest of children occupied, even when they might miss the underlying point of it all. Stoller and Stillman seem to have a large respect for the novel, but – and this is where it gets odd – they wisely strayed from telling the whole story, not only because, in its entirety, the film would have to be a mini-series, but it’s simply just not what they were going for. The themes, as mentioned, are treated with respect, and nothing entirely detrimental is hashed from Gulliver’s arc, though it’s given a magical “kid’s fare” touch. It’s the kind of film in which grown-ups and children alike will laugh at the same thing, but most likely for different reasons.
What surprised me most about the film were its ingrained sarcastic measures and the comic pacing of the script, with Judd Apatow-esque influences all over the place, and the cultural references in the screenplay actually mean something to the story – they aren’t just there for laughs, though they are pretty funny. It’s a smart screenplay, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t thin. For what Stoller and Stillman were trying to achieve, Gulliver’s Travels is a success, but in terms of an adaptation, or even an above-average film, it’s a failure; out of ten, it’s only fair to reward the movie a five. It’s rewatchable, to say the least, but not grand or gigantic enough to achieve the emotional impact that Gulliver’s Travels is supposed to make. Unfortunate, but unavoidable.
Thoughtful performances bring the slick, if empty, script to life. Letterman does the best he can with the proceedings, and the movie gives you plenty of opportunities to sit back, turn off your brain, and enjoy your popcorn. Hell, it’ll even let you go get some more without having to ask the person next to you what you missed. It exists as the holiday film this year was missing, but it should have been more; more sadly, though, it could have been more. Gulliver’s Travels, as fun as this version was, deserves a bigger treatment. Letterman, Black, and associates got the humor, irony and sarcasm correct, and they even injected their own vulnerabilities into the film, but it’s Swift’s vulnerabilities that make the story what it is.
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