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Without a giant effort, ‘Gulliver’ comes up small

If you like Jack Black, you might like adaptation of classic Swift novel

POSTED: January 6, 2011 12:30 a.m.
Twentieth Century Fox/AP/

Jack Black stars as the title character in the latest adaptation of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels."

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It's a bad sign when the best thing you can say about a movie is: it isn't too long.

Twentieth Century Fox's adaptation of Jonathan Swift's novel, "Gulliver's Travels," clocks in at 1:27 total and is actually a few ticks shy of 1:20 if you deduct the credits.

That's a very good thing, because sitting through a single minute more of Jack Black's tired monkeyshines would be intolerable.

Black plays Lemuel Gulliver, a mailroom dweller at the New York Tribune. He's a somewhat lovable loser who sees himself as a little guy worth much less than the giant writing talents who work upstairs.

He has a paralyzing crush on a writer named Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet). When he finally visits her office to ask her on a date, he chickens out and changes the subject, lying that he only stopped by to apply for a job as a travel writer. Darcy encourages him to apply; he plagiarizes a few sample articles, Darcy sends him on an assignment to the Bermuda Triangle and, thanks to a misunderstanding worthy of "Three's Company," we have our clumsy setup.

When Gulliver reaches the mythically mysterious spot, an inverted whirlpool whisks him off to the alternate world of Liliput, where he is a giant compared to the tiny Liliputians.

Anyone who has read Swift's novel or who is merely paying attention knows already how this is going to play out.

Gulliver quickly finds a nemesis in the heroic yet vain General Edward (Chris O'Dowd) and finds a friend in the lovelorn and humble Horatio (Jason Segel). Horatio has been imprisoned for looking inappropriately at Edward's betrothed, Princess Mary (Emily Blunt).

Before leaving Liliput, Gulliver will have to defend the kingdom, defeat Edward, unite Horatio and Mary, and discover himself.

It's hard to tell which demographic the filmmakers are targeting here. The movie has plenty of jokes that will set 5-year olds on a roar, mostly centered on Black's butt crack and bodily fluids. (Looking forward to that, aren't you parents?)

It's mostly a very light movie, occasionally reminiscent of the good-natured camp in "Princess Bride" (although that reference might be a little too kind to "Gulliver's Travels").

Certain scenes, however, seem to play to a much older crowd. One scene builds a whole joke routine around the term "lame ass," repeating it several times in a way that will have those 5-year olds mocking it afterward.

"Gulliver's Travels" is unlikely to inspire strong feelings of any kind, positive or negative. A few scenes are clever enough to make almost anyone laugh, but just as many fall completely flat. It's not half bad, but not half good, either.

It's an inoffensive movie, and that's not a compliment.

I'd rather a movie try very hard and fail than sit through a movie that just doesn't put out much effort. There's no excuse for being lukewarm when we're shelling out nearly 10 bucks per ticket.

The entire movie hinges on how charming and funny you find Jack Black. Like all of his films, this one offers multiple gratuitous, grating musical numbers for Black to mug and stomp his way through.

Black is at an interesting place in his career now that he is a bona fide leading man. On the one hand, he is known for his love of music and his surprising musical talent. At least, it was surprising the first time he suddenly burst into song in "High Fidelity" back in 2000.

But what does a performer do when his trademark becomes worn out? Because there's no question about it: Black's schtick is about as fresh as the story of a human man being stranded in a world of little people.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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