“Gulliver’s Travels” wasn’t the worst film of 2010. With “Little Fockers” and “Yogi Bear” in the running, it wasn’t even the worst film of the second half of December. But it was bad enough, and its release on DVD and Blu-ray gives us an opportunity to examine how it could have better. It is only by learning from our past mistakes that we prevent future calamities.
Step 1: Write a screenplay that makes even a little bit of sense.
This should actually be the first step for any movie. I shouldn’t even have to spell it out, either. And I’m not talking about the fantasy element of the movie, wherein Lemuel Gulliver is whisked away to a magical land where the people are one-twelfth his size. No one has a problem with that. It’s the way he gets there: he convinces the editor of a newspaper that he’s a travel writer, and she immediately sends him on a three-week assignment to Bermuda, where he goes on a solo boat excursion (even though he’s never piloted a boat before) and is carried by a whirlwind to Lilliput.
Every element of that set-up is illogical and preposterous: fooling the editor, instantly being assigned, a three-week trip, solo boat ride, everything. There must be a thousand ideas that would make more sense. Here’s one, off the top of my head: he actually wants to be a travel writer, so he goes to Bermuda on his own dime to pursue a story and impress the editor, and while on a boat piloted by someone who knows what he’s doing he encounters a storm, the captain is knocked unconscious, and Gulliver is carried away by a whirlwind to Lilliput. There. You’re welcome.
Step 2: Get someone other than Jack Black to star.
I know, I’m sorry, I feel as bad about this as you do. There was a time when we found Jack Black’s eyebrow-waggling, irony-laden antics amusing. But now that we’ve seen “School of Rock” and “Nacho Libre” and “Envy” — heaven help us, we actually saw “Envy” — and “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny” and everything else… Well, we’ve had our fill, that’s all. Enough is enough. If Jack Black is going to carry a film, he needs to bring something new to the table. His “Tropic Thunder” performance, for example, was great: the Jack Black we used to like, with a hint of fresh material. “Gulliver’s Travels” is the kind of movie Jack Black makes as a warm-up for something he’s actually interested in.
Which leads us to…
Step 3: Make the main character more likable.
This used to be one of Jack Black’s selling points, actually: people liked him. He was a fun dude. But here his character is a one-dimensional buffoon who is irredeemably smug, self-interested, and manipulative. He lies and cheats constantly, and never really gets any comeuppance for it beyond an “aw, shucks, sorry.” We have no reason to root for him — and, what’s worse, the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. The movie thinks Gulliver is a regular old lovable scoundrel.
Step 4: Put some money into it, for crying out loud.
Making actors appear tiny in relation to other actors is one of the oldest and simplest tricks of filmmaking. On a basic level, it’s just forced perspective: you have the one you want to seem larger stand closer to the camera. Even the more elaborate and realistic-looking methods are not complicated. Yet “Gulliver’s Travels” looks shoddy and slapdash, like a low-budget indie that couldn’t afford to do a good job with the special effects, or like a movie made 60 years ago — when in fact it was made by Twentieth Century Fox in the year 2010.
Step 5: Don’t include the gag where giant Gulliver sits down on the ground, and we see his enormous butt crack as he does so, and he sits on a tiny Lilliputian, who then disappears, presumably lost forever in Gulliver’s butt cleavage (or worse).