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Center of Attention

This modern retelling of 'Gulliver's Travels' is ruined by Jack Black's high-volume shtick

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In a curious bit of promotion, contestants on the recently concluded season of Survivor were given the chance to see Jack Black's new family comedy, Gulliver's Travels, before the film's official release. Talk about roughing it in the wild.

It's never a good recipe for success when the biggest star in the movie is also the worst thing about it. If there was ever a time when Black was not a self-parody, it has certainly long since passed, and his antics here are like outtakes not good enough or funny enough to be used in Envy or Shallow Hal.

Black almost always undertakes his performances with the nature of a tsunami. And of course, any wave of that magnitude will have ripple effects on everything around it. It can work, as in School of Rock, but there's no such luck here. Even the highlights of Gulliver's Travels are overshadowed by and almost seem unrelated to Black's usual song and dance—which consists of too much singing and dancing.

The Jonathan Swift story is updated and refocused, and that's fine. It's a 300-year-old book; certainly, it can be touched up for modern audiences. This Gulliver works in a mailroom at a newspaper, and in an effort to get the girl (Amanda Peet, playing the paper's travel editor), he convinces her he's a writer who just needs a big break. So she sends him to Bermuda, where Swift's island kingdom of Lilliputians is combined with the popular, enduring mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. Through a Gilligan-worthy sea storm, Gulliver winds up imprisoned by thousands of people the size of action figures.

Gulliver disarms his captors with his tales of wonderment from the island of Manhattan, which include the time he found out Darth Vader was his father, and when he died after the sinking of the Titanic ... only to be revived as an Avatar. There's also the small matter of putting out a raging castle fire and saving the Lilliputian king, and if you can guess how someone with Jack Black's lowbrow track record might do that without having any water handy, welcome to second-grade-level comedy.

It is exactly that kind of comedy that holds this family film back. There is clever writing for at least one character, the vainglorious villain, Gen. Edward Edwardian (Chris O'Dowd). As a princess and a commoner in love who are kept apart by the outdated rules of a provincial society, Emily Blunt and Jason Segel certainly have a few moments.

Segel's Forgetting Sarah Marshall director, Nicholas Stoller, co-wrote this script, and it's impossible not to wonder how much better Gulliver's Travels might have been, given the relative qualities of Sarah Marshall and Stoller's Get Him to the Greek. The latter film also had to work around a scene-chomping man-child, but Greek was not a hodgepodge of approaches that ultimately had to play it safe for families. Without Jack Black—even just replacing him with an everyman comedian in place of someone who can only work one way and, by sheer volume, is the most dominant presence onscreen—this might have actually been entertaining.

Almost nothing Black does here is funny; none of it is original, and it blocks the spotlight for a few things that actually do work.

At one point, after a particularly reckless day on Lilliput, Gulliver apologizes to Horatio (Segel) for letting the fact that he's the center of attention go to his head. It's a speech that could serve the actor well, too.

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