Gulliver’s Travels

The word “yahoo,” meaning a crass or stupid person, comes from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel “Gulliver’s Travels,” where the Yahoos were a race of human-like brutes encountered by the title character. The dumb new “re-imagining” of the book, starring Jack Black as the dumb new version of Lemuel Gulliver, does not have any Yahoos in it. Not on the screen, anyway. I … I think you see where I’m going with this.

In this relentlessly mediocre retelling, Gulliver is an unambitious mailroom clerk at the New York Tribune who gets assigned to write a travel story about the Bermuda Triangle and winds up on the isle of Lilliput, where the people are one-twelfth the size of normal humans.

How does a mailroom clerk land such a plum assignment? I will tell you, but please bear in mind that we are only distracting ourselves from the real story.

OK, here goes. Desiring to speak with the beautiful travel editor, Darcy (Amanda Peet), Gulliver stumbles into her office and, to make it look like he’s there on business, blindly grabs a sheet of paper from her desk. This turns out to be an I’d-like-to-write-a-travel-piece-for-the-newspaper request form. (All travel editors have such forms sitting on their desks.) Darcy had no idea Gulliver was a writer, much less one who was interested in doing travel stories! She tells him to bring in a sample of his writing. Gulliver, who is not a writer at all, plagiarizes something from the Internet, Darcy is impressed by it, and she immediately — I mean immediately — sends him on a three-week trip to Bermuda, no questions asked, evidently ahead of all the actual travel writers who would probably have killed for the gig.

In Bermuda, Gulliver is given a boat that he must sail by himself to where the alleged story is. He has never operated a sea vessel before, but it is crucial that he pilot it alone, lest other characters wind up on Lilliput with him and throw off the movie’s mojo. So he takes the boat out into the ocean, alone, without any training, and does just fine, up until magic happens and strands him on the island.

And here we are.

The Lilliputians at first regard him as a threat, as one naturally would if a giant, eyebrow-waggling idiot suddenly appeared on one’s shores. Especially distrustful is Edward (Chris O’Dowd), the pompous general who commands the Lilliputian army and who is betrothed to the princess, Mary (Emily Blunt). But when Lilliput is attacked by its enemies, the similarly tiny Blefuscians, and Gulliver saves the day by being huge and picking up the li’l attackers and discarding them, and then puts out a devastating fire by urinating on it — seriously, he pees all over everything and everyone — he is hailed as a hero. He is the only hero I know of in all of history who achieved his status by showering a kingdom with his own urine.

Gulliver has never been a big-shot before! He wasn’t even very good at being a mailroom clerk. Now, suddenly, his slate is wiped clean. As far as the Lilliputians are concerned, he is whatever he tells them he is. He takes this opportunity to spout a bunch of lies about being the president of his home country, and a mighty warrior, and beloved by the princess Darcy. The delighted and grateful Lilliputians eat it up and work day and night to construct an appropriately sized home for their new hero. They stage pageants in his honor and turn downtown Lilliput into a Times Square-ish homage to all things Gulliver.

Edward still doesn’t trust him. I hasten to point out that he is correct in this assessment. Nonetheless, since Edward is the snotty bad guy, and since a cooler Lilliputian named Horatio (Jason Segel) wants to marry the princess, we are obliged to view Edward as a jerk. For the record, though, he is 100-percent right about Gulliver. I’m just sayin’.

Right about now is when Gulliver finds his iPhone and checks his voice mail. (He can’t get any reception to dial out, but he can get voice mail.) Darcy discovered his plagiarism and is furious with him! And now SHE has to cover the Bermuda story HERSELF, which means she will wind up here, too, and Gulliver will have to prove himself truly heroic, not just to her but to the Lilliputians, and so forth, yada yada.

Look, “Gulliver’s Travels” is old, but it’s not sacred. You want to modernize it, be my guest. Surely there are ways of doing this that are not moronic, though. Surely. Must all the supporting characters (including the king of Lilliput, played by Billy Connolly) be so unremarkable, the actors who play them so misused? Must our protagonist be such a one-dimensional, self-interested buffoon? Must he be so irredeemably smug and unlikable? And must we see his butt crack as he falls and sits on a Lilliputian, who then disappears, apparently into the cleavage of his ample buttocks, never to be seen again?? Must these things be?

The writers are Joe Stillman, who scripted last year’s awful “Planet 51,” and Nicholas Stoller (“Get Him to the Greek”). It’s the live-action debut for director Rob Letterman (“Shark Tale,” “Monsters vs. Aliens”), and what’s surprising is how unconvincing the special effects are. The year is 2010. The studio is Twentieth Century Fox. Using digital trickery to make actors appear tiny in relation to other actors should be among the most basic of tasks, and yet most of “Gulliver’s Travels” looks shoddy and slapdash. There is laziness at every turn — in the writing, in the acting, in the filmmaking. Don’t reward these yahoos.

D+ (1 hr., 33 min.; PG, a little mild profanity, a few instances of vulgar humor.)