Monday, December 27, 2010

big man on campus

I was already queuing up to buy tickets as soon as I heard "Jack Black ... Gulliver" but I can't say that I was expecting all that much. I went with the anticipation I might have when going to see a friend's band—you like your friend, you want to support them, but you really aren't expecting anything exactly new. Best case scenario—a fun night. But Jack Black proved to be a friend with something extra. He made me and everyone I was with, as well as everyone else in the theater on a Christmas afternoon laugh. It was a great way to put off the holiday dinner prep a little longer.

Gulliver's Travels is silly as hell and trades more than a bit on Black's School of Rock persona. School of Rock was tied to Black's Tenacious D rock and roll identity and his Gulliver will seem just another variation on that theme to many. But that personality is perfectly suited to this interpretation of Lemuel Gulliver as an awkward mail room clerk who seems to have no ambition or prospects, but thoroughly enjoys himself via the mostly solitary pursuits of Rock Band and Star Trek fan geekdom—that is until someone points out to him that a bigger world may be passing him by.

I may have to stop checking in at Rotten Tomatoes, which gave the movie a pretty low rating: 18 (critics) / 56 (audience). The idea of "professional" movie critics in this internet age is becoming less and less valid to me. So many times the professional reviewer, who must be bored at having to see everything that comes out, from the divine to the ridiculous, seems to lash out purely at the repetition of themes and tropes in movies. This critical frustration with cliché is completely missing the point of why folks most often go to the movies—to relax, have an afternoon or night out, to escape from the house, work, the tube, fill-in-the-blank. To spend a little money, to laugh, to eat and drink overpriced popcorn and soda, to have something to talk about at the water cooler on Monday.

Not all movies could or should be Oscar winners. A movie like Gulliver's Travels is not geared towards a hyper-critical audience, or a movie critic who considers his- or herself sophisticated and dreams of writing for Cahiers du Cinéma. But Gulliver's Travels is for kids and adults who want a laugh. The movie is very much a live-action cartoon, not surprising since its director, Rob Letterman, previously did Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens.

As much as Black's Gulliver uses a little Prince and Kiss and other held-dear-to-his-character's pop culture references to bond with the Lilliputians, the movie isn't just a Jack Black showcase. Emily Blunt, Jason Segel, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly and Chris O'Dowd all add a little something to the proceedings. O'Dowd is especially good as a General you love to hate, stealing pretty much every scene he appears in. Everyone in the cast goes all out, which is always a good thing in a comedy.

There were some subtle little visual details that helped to make the movie more than just a string of jokes. Showing Jack Black's (short) height in an early scene helped to make his transformation to the "giant beast" of Lilliput all the more ironic and fun. The visual cues worked far more effectively than some dialogue foreshadowing in the set-up scenes with Gulliver's newly-apponted boss, “You’re never going to get any bigger than this.” So, the plot is not exactly a Swiftian satire, but details from the original 18th-century text were worked in, and thankfully not overworked—such as Gulliver's taming of the enemy naval fleet, and his visit to Brobdingnag.

It is interesting to me that most of the lukewarm reviews (as well as the negative ones) fault Gulliver's Travels for not being, well, Gulliver's Travels (the novel by Jonathan Swift). As classic as Swift's story may be, the fact is that it is being used very loosely to create a modernized vehicle for Jack Black & Co. What sort of movie do these critics think would come out of a more faithful interpretation, and more importantly, would anyone actually want to see such a movie? According to Wikipedia,
Possibly one of the reasons for the book's classic status is that it can be seen as many things to many different people. Broadly, the book has three themes:

* a satirical view of the state of European government, and of petty differences between religions.
* an inquiry into whether men are inherently corrupt or whether they become corrupted.
* a restatement of the older "ancients versus moderns" controversy previously addressed by Swift in The Battle of the Books.
Our current generation doesn't seem very adept at satire. Attempts to make films about themes like the state of government or religious differences are usually done in a Serious with a capital "S" kind of way, annoyingly Oscar-baiting, and politically correct. A few satirical films come through from time to time, but usually are also the focus of heavy criticism as well, such as Borat or Wag the Dog. It's not that we're all too dumb now for satire. Stephen Colbert manages to pull it off brilliantly in The Colbert Report and people love The Onion. But film seems to be a bit more difficult. There hasn't been a second South Park movie ...

I tried to read Gulliver's Travels a few times, but never made it beyond Lilliput or Brobdingnag, so I don't think it's a coincidence that most of the film or television adaptations haven't either. My brother really enjoyed the faithful miniseries adaptation in the 1990s that starred Ted Danson (I haven't seen it), so maybe some of these critics should check that out. I've always thought of Gulliver as a bit of a fairy tale, as I grew up seeing both the old animated feature-length cartoon Gulliver's Travels and the Ray Harryhausen classic live-action version, The Three Worlds of Gulliver on television. It's still a big story with enough room for new interpretations.
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