Why did it take so long to lure Jack Black into a live-action kiddie film?
Wasn’t his mugging in “School of Rock” merely an audition for a kid-friendly franchise?
Now, he’s the main attraction in “Gulliver’s Travels,” the latest retelling of the classic Jonathan Swift satire set in Lilliput. Black is the main reason to seek the film out – or avoid it at any and all costs. The direction, storytelling and dialogue all make way to let Black romp and roll across the screen.
Black stars as Gulliver, a mail room clerk with little ambition beyond pining for the comely travel editor (Amanda Peet) upstairs. An office mix up convinces him to pitch a travel story to her. A few plagiarized writing samples later, and Gulliver gets his first assignment – debunk the Bermuda Triangle myth.
Imagine the assignments she gives to seasoned reporters.
Turns out that triangle is a very real pathway to Lilliput, a land where Gulliver stands head and shoulders above the populace – and then some. The locals initially treat him like a giant-sized foe, but Gulliver earns their trust by saving their king. He’s suddenly a hero after years of being a nothing more than a pot-bellied afterthought. But can the Lilliputians count on Gulliver to keep them safe when their sworn enemy, the Blefuscians, prepare to invade their land?
One’s ability to enjoy “Gulliver’s Travels’ depends mightily on two factors – your age and disposition toward Black. He’s an alienating comic presence and will likely remain so unless he finds new comic notes to play down the road. Some love him, while others would rather watch a 12-hour filibuster on C-SPAN than endure his shtick.
The film finds an adult-sized pulse whenever Black’s predilection for pop culture shines through. The best sequence finds Gulliver prancing along to an anti-war anthem of yore, while earlier in the film Gulliver tries to spark some Lilliputian love by quoting ’80s-era Prince. That’s where Black reigns supreme, acting monumentally goofy as if everyone behaved in the same fashion.
“Travels” otherwise trots along with an uninspired script stripped of the story’s satirical underpinnings. Emily Blunt and Jason Segel co-star as would-be lovers separated by class distinctions, but their story can’t survive Black’s strange hold on the narrative. Chris O’Dowd is merely annoying as a Lilliputian who sees Gulliver as a threat to the kingdom and his pursuit of Blunt’s character. The 3-D effects here are negligible, but the special effects are a consistent visual treat.
For some, Black is a special effect unto himself, and they’re the best audience to appreciate his large and in charge performance in “Gulliver’s Travels.”
(Photo: Jack Black stars as a lost soul who finds himself in more ways than one in “Gulliver’s Travels.” 20th Century Fox)