Kate Atherton Reviews Gulliver's Travels

Kate Atherton Reviews Gulliver's Travels

Kate Atherton writes for Bleeding Cool:

I went in to Gulliver's Travels with few expectations and those I had weren't high. One of my favourite novels since I was a little kid (it was even the subject of my thesis at University), I had some doubts about what Jack Black, aka Hollywood, would do to one of the classic satirical novels of the 18th century. The Orange adverts, which I've been subjected to in some kind of interminable loop, didn't help.

But Jack Black was having none of it. With one eye on the spirit of the novel and with the rest of him wholeheartedly immersed in wringing every ounce of humour from the physical situation of Gulliver, a giant among many tiny, prim and proper militaristic xenophobes, he won me over.

Modern day Gulliver works in the mail room of a newspaper and, after some extraordinarily poor flirting and air guitar, finds himself shipped out to the Bermuda Triangle, on his own, as a travel writer. He was in safe hands, though – he had his iPhone with him. Needless to say, the Bermuda Triangle doesn't go well for Gulliver and he finds himself washed ashore with lots of Liliputians running around on him. Not, this time, advertising phones.

The Liliputians are a courtly bunch who like to end every other word with 'eth' and bow and scrape mercilessly to their king (Billy Connolly) and queen (Catherine Tate) and their princess (Emily Blunt). They are also master builders and compensate for the lack of electricity with sheer numbers and ingenuity. This is offset with a barbarous twist, embodied by General Edward (Chris O'Dowd), later to become Vice General Edward.

Product placements abound as Gulliver wins the little people over to 21st-century ways, until there comes a time when he understands that pride, honour, courage and a good singing voice are not necessarily size-associated.

My resistence to Jack Black's Gulliver had begun well, thanks to the initial encounter with Amanda Peet as Gulliver's love interest and editor. Once again Peet finds herself in great oceanic peril (she might not have been wearing a nightdress this time around but Peet's Darcy Silverman is just as two-dimensional as her Kate Curtis in 2012). Peet's character is merely a plot device, her words are either out of character or unbelievable and she is completely overshadowed by the real heroines of the piece; Emily Blunt and Catherine Tate.

Gulliver, on the other hand, is fleshed out, courtesy of Jack Black's charm and enthusiasm and the background of Jonathan Swift's adventurous fantasy. He strikes a chord with these little pompous people who, at the beginning, have little more character than a mound of ants but, thanks to contamination with Gulliver, loosen up and individuals emerge. Jason Segal as Horatio and James Corden as Jinks are cases in point.

The humour of the situation is in safe hands, thanks to Connolly, Tate and Black. Often the humour can be found in the incongruous straight delivery of the excessively formal and courtly Liliputians. There are times when it can take a turn guaranteed to make every child, of whatever age, laugh – such as the best way to put out a fire when there isn't any water.

The 3D is unobtrusive and finely done, supported by the new filming technique developed for Gulliver's Travels, DualMoco. This was described by director Rob Letterman at the London press conference:

It's two cameras that can operate at the same time. And so, for example, at the end of the movie, there's a War song and a big set piece with 250 background extras are dancing with all these guys at a royal navy academy in Greenwich and it was all choreographed. And Jack was on a miniature set 100 yards away dancing simultaneously and both cameras were filming at the same time. We could move the cameras around and they were in sync and I would see it overlaid on my monitor so it was really amazing. And you'd have your piece in your ear and Jack's voice was broadcast through a loud speaker. It was just a big production. But it was really designed to capture performances so that they could happen organically.

The cast includes some of Britain finest comedians and the film is set in familiar British landmarks such as Blenheim Palace (surely very familiar to Emily Blunt by now) and Greenwich. This mix of American and British adds to the appeal and Jack Black's Gulliver may as well be an alien from space when he washes up on that shore. There may be some moments that will make you cringe – the closing song, the Transformer robot, any scene with Amanda Peet in it – but the charm of the script (not to mention the charm of the Lilliputians themselves) and the mix of comic turns may well win you over, just as the Lilliputians are won over.

As for whether Swift would approve, some of the satirical message of his original novel does survive: it's not necessary to fear the unknown in our midst because, you never know, there may be something much worse on the other side of the sea, lost in the mist.

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