Gulliver’s Travels (2010) | Review by Mark Leidner
I never get tired of Jack Black’s shtick because his one joke—self-aggrandizing lies and facial contortions made up on the spot in order to convince and persuade strangers he is more amazing and mysterious than he is—is also my own, only joke. Jack Black movies fail to the extent they restrain this joke and succeed to the extent they let him push it to the limit. Kung Fu Panda was a bitter disappointment because even though Jack Black voiced the main character and was in virtually every scene, his personality was only present in the intro and the closing credits. Gulliver’s Travels gives us more Black than that, and therefore was not nearly the disappointment I feared it would be. Travels echoed one of my other favorite B-comedies, Black Knight, wherein Martin Lawrence, whose shtick is also limited to the hyperbolic bluster of an insecure fool, must save medieval England from itself. But whereas Black Knight’s Lawrence’s blackness throws into relief the whiteness of the Middle Ages, Travel’s Black is a little too white to truly explode the mores of the diminutive Victorian water out of which he is the proverbial fish.
A soggy script and weak special effects are two of the malnourished mules slowing this rickety troika as it grinds through the slush of predictable children’s parable. Camera shots of the massive Black conversing with his Lilliputian heroes and villains almost always feel forced—a giant back of the head here, a jagged CGI background there—and the logic of transportation, geography, time, communication, and character are all made mincemeat in subservience to the ponderous plot. But dragging us through to the finish line intact is portly mule number three, Black’s believable comic acting. An egomaniacal pug, superficially unattractive in every way, who has somehow managed to clamber to the top of Hollywood, or at least the middle, cashing million dollar checks and headlining features in an industry where taller, more handsome and versatile actors can execute their entire careers without notice—what makes Black so watchable? Perhaps it is the accuracy with which the actor, his characters, and roles generally triangulate the crisis and apotheosis of American masculinity. Extreme performative intelligence twizzled around a core of intellectual and emotional immaturity. Go see this movie if you have kids and want them to see what rules the world.