Dir: Rob Letterman. US. 2010. 87mins


Jack Black cycles almost entirely through his bag of performer’s tricks in Gulliver’s Travels, a 3-D family comedy rendering of Jonathan Swift’s 18th century satire that delivers miniaturised laughs. Alternately yawningly obvious and under-sketched, the movie never settles on a consistent tone, or takes full comedic advantage of its big-man-in-a-small-land opportunity for steady physical comedy.

The movie’s 3-D work glancingly captures scale in a fairly nice fashion.

Four years ago during the holiday frame, Fox did huge absolutely huge business with Night at the Museum, which rang up over $250 million Stateside en route to $574 million worldwide. Gulliver’s Travels will attempt to similarly spin gold from exploring a hidden, imaginative world, in what is by far Black’s most overt stab at live-action family comedy. The spectacle of 3-D and Fox’s turnout apparatus should help decimate holdover family film competition Yogi Bear.

After toiling as a mailroom clerk for a decade at a New York newspaper, Lemuel Gulliver (Black) bluffs and stumbles into an assignment while trying to impress the travel editor (Amanda Peet) with whom he’s smitten. Nearing the Bermuda Triangle, he’s sucked into a vortex and transported to an undiscovered land, Lilliput, where everyone is only six inches tall.

After saving King Theodore (Billy Connolly) from a fire, Gulliver wins his freedom and becomes an honored guest, happy to let his hosts believe him a heroic head of state. He counsels a serf, Horatio (Jason Segel), regarding his crush on Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), who is unhappily betrothed to General Edward (Chris O’Dowd). Gulliver also fends off attacks from Lilliput’s rivals, the Blefuscus, until a disgraced Edward teams up with them and leads a charge against his former countrymen.

The script, by Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, awkwardly straddles the line between desultory kid-friendly comedy and trying to make the material something passably referential for adults. The latter is exemplified by everything from an eventually overwhelming litany of pop cultural references (to Fox products, almost all) to a clutch of contemporary music cues, and a strange, massive sing-along version of the Edwin Starr anti-Vietnam protest anthem “War” in the movie’s penultimate scene.

It’s never quite clear why the Lilliputians would lionise Gulliver over their own king, or necessarily be swept up in the film and TV stories into which he inserts himself, since nothing about what we glimpse of Gulliver’s life in New York radiates smoothness. Most damningly, though, the screenplay is characterised by unaccounted for personality shifts, and makes the crucial narrative mistake of having Gulliver readily espouse a lesson which he himself has never learned.

The movie’s 3-D work glancingly captures scale in a fairly nice fashion, but along with the rest of the story doesn’t nearly begin to exploit the full awkwardness of Black’s size in Lilliput.

Black mugs mercilessly, working through his greatest hits of hangdog expressions and bug-eyed reactions; it’s performance by volume, full of effort but only engaging on the level of a cover band’s presentation of a hit tune. Most of the other actors escape in innocuous fashion. As the officious Edward, married to formality, O’Dowd manages to sneakily steal a couple scenes.

A funny, new three-minute short that finds Scrat, from the animated Ice Age films, responsible for plate tectonics, precedes the feature presentation, and extends its running time to 87 minutes.

Production companies: Davis Entertainment Company, Dune Entertainment, in association with Ingenious Media, Big Screen Productions and Phoenix Film Partners

Domestic distribution: 20th Century Fox

Producers: John Davis, Gregory Goodman

Executive producers: Jack Black, Benjamin Cooley

Co-producer: Brian Manis

Screenplay: Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller

Cinematography: David Tattersall

Editors: Dean Zimmerman, Alan Edward Bell

Production designer: Gavin Bocquet

Music: Henry Jackman

Website: www.GulliversTravelsTheMovie.com

Main cast: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris O’Dowd, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, T.J. Miller, James Corden, Catherine Tate