Written in 1726, Jonathan Swift's “Gulliver's Travels” lampooned the conquer-the-world culture of 18th century British imperialism. Its best-known section recounts an encounter with a nation-state of tiny people, who consider Gulliver a giant.
If you're wondering how Hollywood's latest version treats the classic novel's literary and satirical skewerings, your questions will be answered when Jack Black, the new Gulliver, topples backward into an assembly of teeny folk, his shorts and underwear ominously at half-mast.
Guess where one unfortunate little soldier, unable to get out of the way fast enough, finds himself after the surprise “moon landing”?
Masterpiece Theater this ain’t.
If you're a fan of Black from his breakout comedy “School of Rock” or his heavy-metal parody duo Tenacious D, you'll find ample PG-13 giggles here as he rock ’n’ rolls through his role as Lemuel Gulliver, a “little” mail-room employee at a “big” New York magazine, where Lem has a crush on the attractive travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet from TV's “How I Met Your Mother”).
On a trial writing assignment from Darcy, Lem finds himself on a boat in the Bermuda Triangle, where a storm washes him onto the beach of Lilliput.
There he discovers a thriving kingdom of little people with quaint customs, rigid rules of social conduct and a beautiful princess (Emily Blunt) pining for the lowly commoner (Jason Segel) who's been imprisoned for trying to court her.
Soon, everyone is caught up in Gulliver fever, captivated by his heroic acts and his amazing story spun from “Star Wars,” “Titanic” and other shreds of pop culture with which they are naively unfamiliar.
He helps Segal's character, Horatio, woo the princess with lyrics from a Prince song, puts on a rock festival by blasting Guns 'N' Roses from his iPhone, dresses up Lilliputians as KISS to play an improvised version of Rock Band and gets the royal court and its citizens to let their hair down—everyone except a pretentious general (Chris O'Dowd), who sees Gulliver as a threat.
Movie technology has come a long way since Hollywood first brought Gulliver to the big screen in the early 1900s. In this version, camera tricks and special effects make it quite convincing that Black's character is sharing scene with people the size of toy action figures.
And despite its broad strokes of goofball, sometimes gross-out comedy tailored to Black’s gonzo style, the movie does echo some of the novel’s farcical observances of class, military pomp and the foibles of human behavior, no matter what size the humans happen to be.
Eventually, this modern Gulliver ends the long conflict between Lilliput and its vaguely France-like foe with an everybody-dance-now, in-the-streets boogaloo to “War (What Is It Good For).”
Jonathan Swift might not recognize the tune, but he'd probably agree with the message.