Gulliver travels to the 3-D dimension

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2011

"Gulliver's Travels"

20th Century Fox

1 hour, 25 minutes

2010 may become known as the year 3-D either established itself forever, or proved itself to be nothing more than a silly gimmick. Sure, there've been 3-D movies trickling out of the major studios for the past six or seven years, but with James Cameron's "Avatar" hitting at the end of 2009, the floodgates were open. 2010 saw over 25 movies released in the format, and probably twice that are scheduled for 2011.

But are they any good, and is it worth all the hoopla? I honestly can't say for sure. I hear "Avatar" was pretty cool in 3D, and I've heard that it helped "Alice in Wonderland," a movie I found pretty irritating in 2D. But really the only 3D film I've ever seen is this week's Jack Black adventure-comedy, "Gulliver's Travels." If my first experience is any indication, things don't look good.

"Gulliver's Travels" isn't an awful movie by any means, just a lazy one. Black plays our hero Lemuel Gulliver, a lowly mailroom flunky for a prestigious travel magazine. When, in an attempt to impress his secret crush, played by Amanda Peet, he accidently talks himself into an assignment to write about the Bermuda Triangle, you just know things are going to go awry. And that they do. Before you know it, Gulliver finds himself slurped into a giant swirling water vortex and deposited on the Isle of Lilliput, leaving our hero at the mercy of an army of tiny people, all apparently transplanted from early eighteenth-century England.

Though initially a prisoner, Gulliver eventually finds a way to ingratiate himself to the King, securing his release and branding himself a hero. He accomplishes this by rescuing the royal couple, trapped in a burning house, which Gulliver extinguishes by urinating on it.

As a sidebar, I have to say that this scene is so sophomoric and gratuitously scatological (though not at all graphic or particularly offensive), that I pretty much wrote off the movie as a PG version of every other stupid gross-out comedy on the market. You can imagine my surprise to learn later that this scene is taken directly from the text of the classic novel, written not by the Farrelly Brothers in 2010, but by Jonathan Swift in 1726. Not having actually read the novel, this fact made me re-evaluate the film as a whole. Still pretty dumb, but at least with a few literary bona fides.

Gulliver eventually becomes the protector of Lilliput, and spends much of the rest of the movie trying to help his friend Horatio to win the heart of Princess Mary, all the while battling it out with the jealous and petty General Edward. There's a lot of other stuff with rival kingdoms and romantic misunderstandings, but don't get your hopes up that it's going to amount to much. The highlight for my 3-year old son was the giant robot, a recurring villain, but aside from some decent effects and the novelty of seeing tiny little people running around Jack Black's feet, "Gulliver's Travels" has little to offer besides a vaguely cute, inoffensive hour-and-a-half of pleasantly wasted time.

I'm a little hesitant to completely pan "Gulliver," not because I thought the movie was particularly good, but because of my experience with "A Night at the Museum," Ben Stiller's kiddie comedy of a few years back. Initially I thought that movie was terrible, giving it an almost generous C- in my review. It felt trite, silly, and broadly overdone.

Flash-forward a few years and my son has nearly worn out his copy of that movie. My wife and I and the kids sit down to watch it and its Smithsonian based sequel and just laugh all the way through. I don't know if parenthood has changed me or if I was in a bad mood when I saw "Museum" the first time, but I seriously misjudged this sweet, funny kid's movie.

Am I similarly misjudging "Gulliver" by complaining that the plot is pat, the dialogue is poorly written, and the acting is adequate at best? The story itself, having been adapted for the screen more than once in the hundred or so years we've had moving pictures, certainly has potential for a big budget epic fantasy treatment, but this movie feels so throw-away that it's like a waste. It reminds me of the shoddy feel of Black's big comedy of last year, "Year One," except without all the offensive parts.

I was pleased that there was nothing that required me to take my child and bolt, not always a sure bet when Jack Black's involved.

But back to the 3D, the one element I was actually looking forward to in this film, finally getting to see what all the excitement is about. My initial reaction was that the glasses were irritating and made my eyes water from sinus pressure. But, then, I'm not used to wearing glasses, so maybe that had nothing to do with the 3D.

Eventually I got used to the glasses, though I could never forget they were there. But even when they weren't bothering me, the effect was completely underwhelming.

It felt like watching a movie through one of those old Viewmasters where you would look through the eyeholes and push the handle down ca-chunk! to advance to the next picture on the wheel. Why was that so great?

I can't say it necessarily distracted from the film, other than the irritant of the glasses, but it certainly added nothing either. The 3D in "Gulliver's Travels" was a completely pointless gimmick, probably designed to bump up box-office sales via the higher prices theaters charge for the privilege to watch stories told out in 3-Dimensions.

Oh wait -- just flipping through the original manuscript, and it looks like Swift created the original in 3D as well. Oh well.

Grade: C

"Gulliver's Travels" is rated PG for mild juvenile humor.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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