Gulliver's Travels is neither a movie nor an adaptation of Jonathan Swift's fantasy yarn. Rather, it's a cultural artifact of American pop circa 2010, an immediately dated voyage through the seas of our own cinematic feculence.
Jack Black plays Lemuel Gulliver, a career mailroom clerk at a major newspaper. He's supposed to be an endearing slacker but instead comes across as Travis Bickle by way of Emo Phillips. In an attempt to win the heart of travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet), Gulliver plagiarizes a writing sample from Frommer's and receives an assignment in the Bermuda Triangle, where a magic waterspout whisks him away to the anachronistic kingdom of Lilliput. There he makes tiny friends, including Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) and her peasant admirer Horatio (Jason Segel). The cast handles the SparkNotes script with a doomed charisma, and seeing Black at the behest of crap writing makes one wish there was a reality in which Heat Vision and Jack made it past a pilot.
Gulliver's Travels is Lilliputian in both setting and scope — our protagonist spends 90% of the film yukking it up in Lilliput and perhaps 10 minutes captive as a human doll with a giant in Brobdingnag. We catch glimmers of his future adventures — amongst the Yahoos, et al. — in newspaper headlines that dot the credits. So yes, by the time we get the entire purview of Gulliver's adventures, most of the audience is chucking their 3D glasses in the recycling bin. (And no, the barely noticeable 3D won't make you seasick.)
Imagine you're a kid who's watching the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now imagine that some faceless interlocutor waltzes into your living room, stops the movie 40 minutes in, suddenly mutters, "Well, Augustus Gloop is dead. Poor bastard drowned in Nutella," and then makes you pay an inexplicable $8 sunglasses tax. You'd have no idea that Gene Wilder goes on a boat ride through William Burroughs' amygdala. You'd spend the rest of your life thinking the film was about the accidental death of a German child with juvenile diabetes.
That's what Gulliver's Travels feels like — it's truncated, but it never gives you a nod that it's truncated. Surprisingly, an annoying open-ended ending would've been welcome here. Something like the ending to Deep Rising! But no, the film wraps up neatly. It's like the filmmakers knew they wouldn't recoup their $112 million budget. I hoped to see some cinematic limbo à la Super Mario Bros., but alas and alack, this is not the case.
But importance is not synonymous with quality. Ultimately, the film's virtue lies in the fact that it's a temporally girded reinterpretation of a classic. In other words, future generations will look back on this film and telepathically beam to each other, "Well, that's how they did Gulliver's Travels before The Spectacular Bauxite War of 2X15." But what separates it from films like the 1996 Ted Danson version of GT or Julie Taymor's recent redo of The Tempest? Well, the film has almost zip to do with Swift's book, but it's a ferociously shameless time capsule of 2010 pop culture.
For a film based on an 18th century novel, there's a ton of product placement. Gulliver makes the Lilliputians reenact Guitar Hero, brings Coca-Cola to their land like some globalizing god, and adds a recreation of Times Square filled with billboards of Gulliver reenacting famous Apple ads to their wee baroque society. Furthermore, Gulliver pads his history with anecdotes from Star Wars, Wolverine: Origins, and Avatar — yes, ~365 days later, we're getting Na'vi gags.
Gulliver eventually falls from grace at the apex of his made-up fame amongst the Lilliputians. I'd say that the film was making a meta-statement about how a reliance on easy pop culture gags and a barrage of product placement cause a narrative to fall flat — indeed, Gulliver's humbled by a steampunk mecha (don't ask) in his own garish, Gulliver-centric Time Square — but that's a fucking audacious joke to blow $112 million on. The film is an unintentional satire of itself.
To make matters even weirder, the film contains casual references to sexuality that, up until 2010, wouldn't be tolerated in mass-distributed children's entertainment. It's the only PG-movie I can think of with a skeet-skeet gag, and it has the second golden shower joke I've seen in a family film this holiday season. I mean, violence for tots was old hat in the days of Struwwelpeter, and kids' movies and fart jokes have been pals since the 1990s. This is likely the first time the MPAA's been hoodwinked by a PG-rated ejaculation joke. If that's not a sign of the times, I don't know what is.
Swift's original work has endured as a landmark piece of speculative fiction, but it too was a work of topical political satire. This remake offers nothing innovative or enjoyable, unless your two favorite pastimes happen to be salvia and Darby O'Gill and the Little People. No, the utility of Gulliver's Travels is its all-encompassing topicality. It won't make sense to us come March. And when this film is watched 10,000 years from now, the literate horses who've replaced us will use Swift's book as a yardstick and shrug, "Well, it's unsurprising they went extinct."