Gulliver’s Travels is not a film, it is a hate crime against anyone who loves cinema. Let’s try an exercise, shall we? Stop reading for a minute, grab a pen and paper and write a list of everything that is wrong with contemporary cinema. Congratulations, you have just written Gulliver’s Travels. Kill yourself.
Before we get into what this film is, let’s take a quick look at what it isn’t. It isn’t funny. Dear God, it’s not funny. That’s not to say there aren’t jokes, or that the cast (composed largely of people who can be funny) isn’t trying hard, but not a single gag raised a smile from me, and the rest of my mercifully small audience barely made a sound during the film, enabling us all to hear the deadening thud with which every last joke landed. Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, is acclaimed as one of the greatest satirists ever to work in the English language, but instead of wit here we get Jack Black at his most obnoxious. Black can be funny (see School of Rock or the still underrated High Fidelity) and he can also act (see Margot at the Wedding) but here his performance as Lemuel Gulliver (recast as an underachieving mailroom worker who ends up in Liliput when, unable to declare a crush on travel journalist Darcy (Amanda Peet), he asks for a writing assignment and is sent to the Bermuda Triangle) is that of an attention starved 5 year old yelling for its mother to PLEASE look at it. It is a gigantic performance in more ways than one; colossally hammy and toweringly terrible, the only small thing about it is the laugh count.
It isn’t well written. The screenplay is not so much a story as a vague stringing together of Black’s antics, mixed in with a few desperately obvious scenes focused on the Liliputians. The main storyline, aside from Gulliver’s, is about a forbidden romance between the Liliputian princess (Emily Blunt, hopelessly adrift, and demonstrating again that comedy is not her forte) and a commoner named Horatio (Jason Segel). Imagine Roxanne, but with no laughs and a rendition of one of Prince’s more irritating songs (Kiss) and you’ll get the picture of the key ‘funny’ scene in that story. Chris O’Dowd tries hard as the commander of the Liliputian army, spurned when the seemingly invincible Gulliver arrives, but even when the idea of a scene isn’t bad (such as when he comes round for an appointed five minutes of courtship with the princess) the jokes just don’t connect. Perhaps the worst aspect of the writing is the clanging obviousness of it, in one early scene Gulliver finds a schematic depicting how to build a robot suit in his gaming magazine (oh, how plausible) and then says “Yeah, like that’ll happen”. Guess what happens. Otherwise it’s just one lazy pop culture riff after another, each seemingly more soul destroyingly unfunny than the last.
It’s not pleasant to look at. Before we get to the 3D conversion, let’s talk for a second about the special effects. Do you remember the sequence in Wayne’s World when, after they get corporate sponsorship, Wayne and Garth play around with some blue screen effects? The effects in Gulliver’s Travels look worse than that. The compositing is unforgivably awful, not one single shot places Gulliver convincingly in Liliput, and the sequences in which he interacts with the actors playing Liliputians have matte lines more obvious than Cher’s plastic surgery. It is just awful, it looks like the composting was handed over to a stoned work experience kid and then never checked, in this day and age a studio should have been too embarrassed to release a film that looked like this. So, let’s talk about the 3D, it adds less than nothing. It’s a conversion, so rather than real depth (which we’d have in a 2D version, because 2D can do depth) we get an ugly, visibly layered, viewmaster look, yay progress. It also helps accentuate all of the film’s hobbling visual problems, again, hooray for progress.
It’s not got an original thought in its head. Pop culture references can be funny, but you’d better find a new spin on them. Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t, instead preferring the Seltzerberg school of comedy route of showing us something we recognise and expecting it to magically become a joke. It doesn’t work. The extended sequences of Gulliver’s stories to the Liliputians about who he is and where he comes from feel like a series of bite size bits from the worst act at open mic night at the Comedy Pouch. Just a quick question… why does every comedy since Shrek have to end with a musical number? Here it’s War, and it arrives out of a complete non-sequitur. I just don’t get it. How is this amusing? Why does it belong in this movie? What the hell is going on? Has everyone taken drugs, and if so can I please for the love of all that is holy have some?
So, what is Gulliver’s Travels? Repellent. It’s probably the worst film I’ve seen since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s a film made with no care, no interest in anything but focus groups and bottom lines. It’s an expression of total contempt for an audience. It’s an insult to cinema and, sadly, it’s an indication of where mainstream cinema as a whole is right now; in the toilet. Do anything to avoid seeing it, the only use for this film is as a non-custodial sentence.