Do people still read Gulliver’s Travels? I only know the book through its many pop-cultural references, from Ashlee Simpson’s “Outta My Head” music video to The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode in which Lisa Simpson creates a colony of tiny people inside a Petri dish, only to be transformed into one of them and made their queen—itself a reference to other Gulliver’s Travels-inspired science-fiction stories.
The new Jack Black-starring adaptation is at least as derivative as those other pieces of ephemera, and not nearly as delightfully meta: Marketed as a hip, modern adaptation of a classic, the movie feels more like a Christmastime TV special projected in 3D (the movie opens on December 25). Black is the modern-day Gulliver, a version of his High Fidelity schlub, working in a New York newspaper’s mailroom until he’s finally assigned a travel story by his office crush (Amanda Peet) and, well, you more or less know the rest: He’s washed ashore, captured by little people in a village called Liliput, and subsequently worshipped as their ultimate warrior; he then takes advantage of his hosts’ accommodations, learns moral lessons about honesty, courage, etcetera.
It’s not entirely clear why this movie (one of several Gulliver’s Travels film adaptations that have been made) even exists, except maybe to resuscitate Black’s career—or, more likely, to cash in on a slow vacation week. But it’s a reminder, at least, that Black can be charming even when he’s hamming it up for a script. Of course, aside from a series of strangely ‘90s pop-cultural allusions (a Photoshopped billboard of Black as Mark Wahlberg in his Calvin Klein underwear days), the filmmakers play it straight (one of the bigger jokes is a scene in which Black urinates over the entire village to put out a fire). Which means at least the kids in the audience (and their parents) won’t be as confused about when to laugh as with your average self-aware Tangled. And if Christmas day is about anything, it’s knowing what you’re getting.