Some movies start off bad and never intend to be much more than that (see Little Fockers for a prime example). Others, like Gulliver's Travels, seem to start off promising and then spin horrifyingly off the rails, caught up in a bizarre premise, nonsensical story, and a genuinely unappealing star presence which results in something that would be fascinatingly strange if it weren't so damn boring. Squandering both Jonathan Swift's literature classic and the star power of Jason Segel and Emily Blunt (Jack Black, at this point, seems fairly beyond saving), Gulliver's Travels is gobsmackingly terrible, it ought to be seen to be believed, except it's almost impossible to stay awake long enough to do that.
A familiar modern anti-hero type, Gulliver (Black) works in the mailroom of one of those mythical, utterly fictional New York newspapers with a lavish budget, where he crushes on the travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet) and advises his new lackey (T.J. Miller) that it's silly to aspire for anything beyond pushing the mail cart. Given his big break both at a career and Darcy's heart, Gulliver plagiarizes some travel pieces and gets an assignment to explore the Bermuda Triangle. Before you can say "magical water spout and a complete disregard for boating safety," Gulliver is transported to Lilliputia, an island inhabited by tiny people who regard Gulliver, rightly, as a beast to be feared and tamed.
So far so good, or at least par for the course in kid-targeted adventure films about heroes learning their own worth. Gulliver teams up with Lilliputian Horatio (Segel) and endears himself to the community by protecting them from attack. He helps Horatio woo the princess (Blunt) away from her pompous fiance (Chris O'Dowd), and then regales the Lilliputians with tales of his world, in which he was "President Awesome" and starred in both Star Wars and Titanic. The pop culture references fly fast and furious, with Gulliver feeding Horatio lines from Prince's "Kiss" in a Romeo and Juliet inspired romance scene, a replica of Times Square erected in Gulliver's honor, and the bad guys cook up a giant robot that's supposed to be their answer to Gulliver's might as a warrior, but really just recreates the dull metal-on-metal fight scenes from Iron Man 2 (that one might not have been intentional).
Always something of a child in man's body, Black has been elevated to kid-god status thanks to his voicing Kung Fu Panda, and struts around this movie as if he knows kids will burst out laughing at the sight of him. Segel, so good at playing unhinged in I Love You Man and on How I Met Your Mother, is totally wasted as straight-man Horatio, and poor Emily Blunt-- obligated by her old Devil Wears Prada role to appear in another movie for Fox-- should be commended for merely not holding her nose on the screen.
Describing individual moments from Gulliver's Travels, like, a Lilliputian crushed by Black's ass or a giant girl forcing Gulliver to make out with a toy in her dollhouse, makes it sound like the kind of unhinged failure that deserves a watch some late night in the future. But it steers over to the straightforward children's movie pablum that inspired it far too often, and then a basically nonexistent narrative makes following the film's cause and effect nearly impossible. It's not just weary parents who will get fed up with this one; kids will probably realize they've been duped too.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich