The iconic image of Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift's book, the myriad illustrated versions, and all the subsequent movies and cartoons - is the one with the giant man splayed on the beach, strapped down by hundreds of tiny ropes, and tiny soldiers clambering furiously over his body.
That scene is restaged early in the latest Gulliver's Travels, with Jack Black, fresh from 21st-century Manhattan but tossed ashore on Lilliput, flat on his back, his Converse All-Stars aiming skyward. If only the Lilliputians could have figured out how to keep the one-note comic actor in restraints, and maybe jab him now and again with pointy sticks.
A murderously unfunny rethink of the groundbreaking literary satire, Gulliver's Travels - directed by Rob Letterman (Shark Tale, Monsters vs. Aliens) and presented in superfluous 3-D on many screens - takes the basic big-man-among-wee-people concept AND DOES ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WITH IT. Unless you consider transforming Lilliput's elegant 18th-century grand plaza into a tacky Times Square commercial strip, or having Gulliver battle a towering Transformer-like robot, doing something.
Black, alack, is Lemuel Gulliver, a mail-room employee for a New York newspaper. He's one of the "little people" (get it?), way down the hierarchical chart, and his underachieving, slacker ways seem destined to keep him there. He can't even summon the nerve to ask the travel editor he has a crush on - Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet) - on a date. But then, in a panicky moment of characteristic callowness, he presents a couple of sample articles to impress her. Never mind that he plagiarized them (he's bumbling, he's jive, and he's ethically challenged!). Before Darcy finds out, she has sent him on assignment to the Bermuda Triangle, which is how he ends up in the land of Lilliput.
There, a monarchy (Billy Connolly as king, Catherine Tate the queen) has problems with the enemy Blefuscians. The royals also have to manage their pouty daughter, Princess Mary (Emily Blunt, all dressed up with nowhere to go), betrothed halfheartedly to Lilliput's stuffy general (Chris O'Dowd). But really, it's a Lilliputian everyman, Horatio (Jason Segel), who pines for her, and thinks that she would pine right back, if she could.
Gulliver, wholly ineffective when it comes to romance back on his own turf, becomes Horatio's mentor, saying all sorts of Jack Black-y things to him, like "you've got to employ some grade-A court-ahhge." Gulliver stops short of calling everybody dude, but just.
Joe Stillman, whose credits includes some Shreks, and Nicholas Stoller, who directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek and who should know better, have their names on the screenplay. And Black, as if reliving his School of Rock salad days, offers the eensy-weensy populace his cover versions of Prince's "Kiss" and Edwin Starr's "War" ("what is it good for?").
Those lucky Lilliputians. They could have buried him in the sand.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea