Monday, January 3, 2011

Gulliver's Travels

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's Review -
Onion/AV Club Review -,49429/

Jack Black’s new release Gulliver’s Travels is a movie intended for an audience of 10 year old boys. If one understands this then one will probably enjoy the movie for what it is. If one expects more of the movie then one will be disappointed and certainly plenty of critics have felt disappointed. Why?

I would explain the matter in this way. Most American adults will remember Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels from their English Lit classes that they took in high school. Most who read the book in this context will probably remember it fondly because, good God, it’s so much better and so much easier to read than Thomas Hardy’s Tess of D’Urbervilles.

Among those who read Gulliver’s Travels, there will be those who appreciated the political humor in it. Most of us would have no idea who the “Whigs” and “Tories” were in England at the time of Jonathan Swift or what they stood for, but would still appreciate the humor in Swift’s portrayal of the Lilliput King’s wearing a high heeled shoe and a low heeled shoe to placate the “High Heel” and “Low Heel” parties of Lilliput and that the “Sovereign’s limp” was seen as a “sublime sign of compromise” by his subjects. Today, we would call that “a sign of bipartisanship.”

Yes, Jonathan Swift _can_ be read in that way. It can be fun for older teens and adults to read it in that way. (I loved Jonathan Swift when I read him in English Lit). It is, indeed, the way that Jonathan Swift probably would have intended to be read. If you don’t remember this kind of satire in Jonathan Swift’s book when you read it in school as a teenager please go to the public library or to Amazon, get the book and READ IT AGAIN. It really is a fun book.

But the _primary_ thing that most of us will remember of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver’s Travels is simply that Gulliver found himself first in Lilliput a land inhabited by tiny people no more than about 5-6 inches tall and later (if one read that far) traveling to another land (named Brobdingnag) where Gulliver became the tiny person in the midst of giants.

This largely “dumbed down” version is what Jack Black is providing. There ARE critics who expected more. The college oriented Onion/AV Club gave the movie a D-. Harsh ;-). I disagree, but I understand. But then just buy Jonathan Swift’s original and read it for yourself, and accept Black’s dumbed down version for what it is: a nice fun movie with actually a good message for the kids.

Now surprisingly the CNS/USCCB critic would dispute even that there is a good message in the movie for kids and gives the movie an “O” (morally offensive) rating. I simply don’t get the CNS/USCCB’s critic here at all, unless he simply doesn’t understand the mind of a 10 year old.

Yes, Gulliver (played by Jack Black) is introduced as a slacker (and, yes, actor Jack Black has traveled that path before). OK, but he changes during the course of the movie and changes in a way that a 10 year old could understand.

In this story, Black’s Gulliver has worked in the mail room of a magazine publisher in New York for 10 years without much desire to move-up to a better job. But he does seem to have a crush on the woman who’s the “travel editor” at the magazine. Egged-on by a new employee in the mail-room, rather than asking her on a date (which, come-on would not have been realistic at that point anyway) _he lies to her_ and says that he travels and writes. She says, “okay, show me what you can do.” Since he really didn’t travel or write, he copies (plagiarizes) two articles from the internet and tries to pass them off as his own. The editor is “impressed” and saying “Gee, and the articles are so remarkable, written in such different styles...” She gives him an assignment then to write about a trip to the Bermuda Triangle.

That assignment gets him lost in Lilliput. In the meantime she finds out that he plagiarized those two articles and leaves a message on his phone to that effect. That’s the last message that he gets on the “titanic orb” that the Lilliputians found by his wrecked craft.

Gulliver, a life-long slacker now finds himself a giant among these tiny Lilliputians. They also don’t quite understand how or why he arrived on their shores. The temptation is great. He lies about his background, making himself the President of Manhattan. He also presents himself as the hero of all kinds of stories (Star Wars, Leonardo di Caprio’s version of the Titanic, etc). Eventually, of course the contradictions of his lies come crashing in on him AND BOTH HE AND HIS LILLIPUTIAN FRIENDS PAY FOR HIS LIES.

In a scene that any 8-10 year old would understand, Jack Black’s Gulliver comes to realize that his lies have hurt people that he cared about AND THAT THESE PEOPLE WOULD HAVE A TOUGH TIME TRUSTING HIM BECAUSE OF HIS PREVIOUS LIES. Gulliver comes to save the Lilliputian king who finds himself imprisoned by enemies in part because previously he trusted Gulliver’s apparent invincibility too much. The king tells Gulliver “Everything you’ve ever told us since you’ve come here has been lies. Why should we trust you now?” Jack Black’s Gulliver begins by answering in typical slack fashion “Hey man, my word is my ... bond ... (then stops realizing the problem) ... uh ... (and continues) ... this time.”

This is a great scene and with a message that I believe that ANY 8-10 year old would understand: IF YOU LIE, PEOPLE YOU CARE ABOUT WILL STOP TRUSTING YOU.

I write this because the CNS/USCCB critic writes that Black’s Gulliver’s Travels sends the message to little kids that lying and plagiarizing is okay. NO IT DOESN’T.

Jack Black’s Gulliver PAYS for his lying and plagiarizing. In each case, it becomes clear to him that he’s lost the trust of people he cares about. He realizes that he wants those people’s trust. So he apologizes / makes amends. Yes, he wins the girl (the editor) at the end (AFTER MAKING AMENDS). So what? What’s the alternative, that he gets flogged for his past sins? Black’s Gulliver realizes that he’s hurt people by his lying/plagiarizing (by his sins). He makes amends and everyone lives happily ever after. Sounds kinda like what we try to teach our kids and preach on Sundays (or have we _stopped_ believing "in the forgiveness of sins?")

And yes, there’s a scene where the King’s palace is on fire. Gulliver’s a giant. The people beg Gulliver to do something. He needs a lot of water, there isn’t a lot of time. He comes up with an idea. He even warns them, “You’re not gonna like this.” The people beg him to do whatever he needs to do anyway. We see a gigantic pair of trousers drop on the buildings by the burning palace, and ... he puts out the fire ... ;-)

Again, was the CNS/USCCB critic ever a cub scout or 10 years old?

Unless you were offended by the description of the scene above (and some might be), I would recommend this movie to families with younger (8-12 year old) kids. I’d also recommend to adults who may not have read the book to read it for themselves. It’s a good story.

One last thing. This movie is out in 3D. However, there's no screaming reason to have to see _this movie_ in 3D as it works perfectly well in 2D. Save your money there.

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