Sunday, February 06, 2011

Gulliver's Travels (Rob Letterman)

Gulliver's travesty

I can see the appeal of making a Gulliver's Travels for the kiddies--that, for better or worse, is the most common way of attacking this material. Average guy finds himself marooned on an island with tiny men, and animals, and buildings. It's the ancient fantasy, indulged in hundreds, even thousands of years of modelmaking, of toy houses, of playing with costumed, articulated dolls (sorry--action figures): in effect, to be a giant loose in a world of small stature, the Big Man in a tiny town. 

And Jonathan Swift, who wrote the original Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (a title which hundreds of years of eager readers have glibly ignored, preferring to call it by its more famous nickname) helped encouraged this fantasy. His precise prose created a comprehensively miniaturized world with a scale difference of 1 is to 12, carried out consistently throughout every aspect of that world: the Liliputians, for example, are six inches high; their horses four and a half inches (not very tall animals); the city walls two and a half feet high and eleven inches thick; so on and so forth (Swift has even carefully considered how much oxen and wheat and beer is spent in feeding Gulliver's appetite). One is to twelve is of course the classic scale by which modelmakers build models, and dollmakers build their dolls; it's a handy scale to remember (an inch equals one foot) and broad enough a canvas to allow us to see every detail clearly.

But but but--Swift's novel is so much more than a fantasy of the Big Guy. It's a treatise on humanity, on all-too-human foolishness; on the silliness of human society when viewed from a high vantage point (Gulliver's view of the silly, squabbling Lilliputians), and the foolishness of that vantage point when viewed from an even higher position (the Brobdingnagians' view of silly, squabbling Gulliver). It's a shocking, scatological novel, pitiless in its sarcasm, relentless in its anger, endlessly, wonderfully imaginative. It's not a perfect work--the third portion, where Gulliver encounters the Laputians and the Struldburgs, you can feel Swift struggling to live up to the energy of his two earlier creations and not quite succeeding. But as a piece of satire it's brilliantly sustained (for the most part), and passionately felt (that passion is important; God save us from 'ironic' satires that assume a 'godlike' distance--if Swift didn't care, he wouldn't have invested so much care into his work).

So what to say about Jack Black's Lilliputian effort, this puerile, bowdlerized, largely infantile adaptation of Swift's Brobdingnagian book? We waste time establishing Black's character--a 10-year slacker veteran of the corporate mailroom--and love interest (Amanda Peet, playing a character dumb enough to accept a direct steal from Time Out and Fromme's without even being the least bit suspicious). More time is wasted on a subplot about a princess (Emily Blunt, otherwise pretty) and her commoner lover (Jason Segel). Chris O'Dowd manages some traction as the general in charge of the Lilliputian army (though most of the satire involving him turns out to be mainly small beer) while comic veterans Bill Connolly and Catherine Tate--talents large enough to do full justice to Swift's take-no-prisoners brand of humor--are wasted on the sidelines.

Instead, we get Black. Lots of Black. Black with rolling hips; Black with undulating love handles and man-boobs; Black being given the Wedgie of His Life (okay, not entirely unsatisfying). Instead of a definitive adaptation of Swift's masterpiece (aided by state-of-the-art digital effects and some post-production 3-D) we get an encyclopedia of Black shenanigans and the results are, frankly, too disappointingly bland to bear. Perhaps the only scene that even approaches Swift--when Black saves both palace and king inside by pissing on the flames--is taken directly from the book, a rare moment for the movie. Perhaps the best moment not originally from the book--when Black is dressed up as a doll and played with by a Brobdingnagian brat--is funny only because we badly want to see the man humiliated (it would have been more faithfully Swiftian if Black suffered indigestion and the girl had been slow in applying the diaper).

Rob Letterman--director of animated features like Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tales (not exactly top-drawer titles)--directs this as if it were itself an animated cartoon. Black acts in it--if you can call his overfamiliar schtick 'acting'--as if Gulliver were a pathetic slob destined to become rock-star hero (which Black is in practically everything he's in). Neither seems to recognize Swift's novel as a work of infinite wit and high moral fury, or its protagonist as an Everyman who starts out as cheerful innocent and ends up a raging misanthrope. Infantile, crude? Yes, but that's not my real problem--Swift could often be both and worse, in the space of a few pages. Black's movie feels like a wet towel snapped at one's naked behind; Swift's novel is more like an unapologetic kick to the nuts. May I make a modest suggestion for the sequel? Black in the land of the Brobdingnags, stuck on a spit and roasting slowly over an open fire. My mouth waters.

First published in Businessworld, 1.6.11

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