As the end of the year approaches, much like the Salvation Army bell ringers tolling to get you to donate your loose change, Hollywood always seems to serve up some giant family-friendly special-effects extravaganza. 2010's entry in this dubious tradition is a reworking of Gulliver's Travels starring Jack Black, a man who at his best is a special effect all on his own.
The movie's premise is a simple one that owes more to Night at the Museum than Swift's original novel. Black plays Lemuel Gulliver, a ten-year employee in the mailroom of a New York newspaper who can't summon the courage to ask out Darcy (Amanda Peet), the travel editor he's had a crush on for years. Spurred by a new co-worker, he goes to her office to ask her out, but ends up instead with a writing assignment involving a visit to the Bermuda Triangle.
After getting caught in a giant storm, Gulliver washes up in Lilliput, a land populated by very tiny people. Though he is initially taken prisoner and thought of as a giant monster, Gulliver wins over the natives by saving Lilliput's Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) from a kidnapping attempt, and rescuing her father, the king, from a fire. However, the king's number-one military man, General Edward (Chris O'Dowd), begins a plan to get Gulliver banished.
Having Jack Black play a character that is physically larger than life is a really excellent example of redundancy. He's a performer already so overflowing with energy and life that having him tower over everyone and everything else in the picture is overwhelming; there isn't space for anyone -- or anything -- else, even with the state-of-the-art-but-still-underwhelming 3D effects.
There are some quiet comic moments. Blunt and Jason Segel, playing a commoner who loves the princess, do manage to break through the onslaught; they give off a Princess Bride vibe that's so appealing you wish they had more screen time together, even though they never get anything as endearingly strange to play as a Cyrano-esque seduction where Gulliver prompts Segel's character to quote Prince's "Kiss." And when Gulliver briefly ends up in a land filled with giants, his confinement in a dollhouse has a lightly macabre feeling -- like Tim Burton at his most kid-friendly -- that the movie otherwise avoids.
But these are fleeting moments in a movie that's simply so desperate to entertain that it never settles into a comfort zone. It's almost like director Rob Letterman knew that if he didn't overwhelm us with activity and busyness, we might notice that nothing interesting is happening.