Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2011

Giant failure

What, exactly, is the point behind 'Gulliiver's Travels'?

Gulliver's Travels
20th Century Fox
Director: Rob Letterman
Screenplay: Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, based on the book by Jonathan Swift
Starring: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris O'Dowd, Billy Connolly, Amanda Peet and Catherine Tate
Rated PG / 1 hour, 25 minutes
(out of four)

Whose idea was this? That's my question. I want to know whose bright idea it was to buy the rights to a piece of required reading for first-year college students, update it for modern audiences, transfer the story into the world of magazine travel writing, throw Jack Black into the lead role, film it in schlocky 3D and dumb everything down so that the film could reach its target demographic of 10-year-olds.

What exactly was the thought process here? Does Jonathan Swift have some sort of cachet among the third-grade set that I don't know about? Were there hoards of elementary school children clamoring for a new cinematic interpretation of this "Gulliver" fellow and his travels to lands terrible and strange? Did 20th Century Fox think these tots would be sitting on Santa's lap begging for the newest Brobdingnag lunchboxes and Lilliputian action figures?

I know nothing about the genesis of this project, but the very idea reeks of studio idiocy. Hey, people like special effects, right? THIS movie could have special effects with all the different-sized people in it! It'd be just like 'Lord of the Rings!' And hey, kids like Jack Black, right? He'd make a credible conquering hero and romantic lead or Amanda Peet, right? And hey, we're making boatloads of extra cash stealing people's money with hiked-up ticket prices for terrible 3D technology, so let's go ahead and throw that in there, too. Those dumb kids will LOVE to see random crap flying at the screen.

But seriously, folks. This was misguided from the start. What possible appeal did the studio think this package would have? To clarify: I actually have no issue at all with modernizing the story. They can modernize any story they want for all I care. There have been successful modernizations of Shakespeare, Homer, the Bible, you name it - Swift is fair game.

But this? Who thought that this would actually work?

Well, let me tell you exactly how they try to make it work. So we start on Jack Black, lowly mail room employee and "Guitar Hero" afficionado. He looks and acts the way you would expect any Jack Black protagonist to look in a movie that only cares about his star power. (Whereas Black can actually give good performances when the filmmakers care about the role itself - see: High Fidelity, King Kong, The School of Rock.)

Anyway, Gulliver delivers the mail at a national magazine and has had an intense crush on the travel editor, Darcy (Peet), for years. But he's never had the courage to ask her out. You're never going to believe this, but Peet has secretly [and inexplicably] had a thing for Gulliver, too.

So when Darcy suddenly has a Bermuda Triangle story that needs covering, it's only natural that she would allow Gulliver to write the story. Gulliver's very clever, you see - he plagiarizes a few online travel guides as his "writing sample" and wows the editor. Mission accomplished.

Naturally, the magazine sends Gulliver unaccompanied out into the ocean on a boat. At this point, you realize the filmmakers just didn't even care. "Mr. Director, we've somehow gotta get Gulliver from the New York mainland to Lilliput. But HOW?" / "Meh, let's just say the company sends a person without any boating experience out on his own boat into the ocean. The audiences will be too dumb to question us, right? Right."

Anyone at all familiar with the Swift story pretty much knows the drill from here. The film spends most of its time with the Lilliputians but, curiously, feels the need to have one isolated sequence on Brobdingnag, where instead of being a giant among tiny people, he's a tiny person among one giant little girl who enslaves Gulliver in her dollhouse. What is the purpose of this sequence? I haven't the vaguest idea.

The problem with Gulliver's Travels isn't that it's a broad, modern adaptation of a famous old story - it's that it's simply a lazy piece of filmmaking. The idea was lazy and ill-conceived, the approach to the modernization was lazy, the incessant pop-culture references are lazy, the special effects are lazy and the film feels no need to earn anything.

Gulliver and Darcy are destined to be together not because of anything that actually occurs in the movie, but because they're the romantic leads and that's what romantic leads are supposed to do - get together. Heroes defeat villains not because of any interesting or amusing storytelling or plot wrinkles, but because that's what heroes are supposed to do - defeat villains.

I'd be up for seeing a legitimate Gulliver's Travels modernization one of these days. Knock yourselves out, Hollywood. All I ask is that you give us a little effort next time. Seeing this version, it's clear everyone knows they're putting out a piece of junk. And they couldn't care less.

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