Genius Products // 1996 // 187 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 3rd, 2008
The only Jonathan Swift book that anyone wants to adapt!
"Good plan boys, but I don't think we should actually murder him. You were so keen on killing Mother last year, and now I miss her dreadfully." -- The Emperor of Lilliput
Doctor Gulliver (Ted Danson, Mad Money) has been missing for nine years. One day, he returns home, seemingly delirious. Gulliver raves about tiny people and strange adventures. His wife (Mary Steenburgen, The Perfect Storm) is worried about Gulliver, but soon begins to realize that he is telling the truth. Through flashback, we are told the story of Gulliver's many fascinating experiences. He meets little people, big people, an evil sorcerer, and even journeys to the world of animals!
My first encounter with Gulliver was viewing an old cartoon version. I remember watching it quite often as a kid. Gulliver was a really boring guy who didn't do much of anything interesting, but the land of Lilliput featured lots of colorful characters. Later I would read Jonathan Swift's novel, and was surprised to learn that there was a whole lot more to the story, but I still wasn't very interested in Gulliver. Now I've had a chance to view the 1995 Hallmark adaptation, and once again I found Gulliver to be a rather dull fellow. I think I'm actually okay with that. Gulliver's Travels has never really been about Gulliver. He's only a guy designed to get us to a lot of interesting new places.
The first stop on the journey is also the most well-known and popular, Lilliput. The Lilliputians are very tiny people, each about as large as one of Gulliver's fingers. They are currently at war with the Big Enders, a group of rebel Lilliputians who insist on breaking their eggs at the big end instead of the little end. It reminded me a bit of all those Sneetches, which is precisely the point. Initially, Gulliver agrees to help the Lilliputians in their war against the Big Enders, but draws a line when it comes to hurting people. This makes the Lilliputians quite angry, and Gulliver is forced to leave. There's plenty of fun to be had while he's there, though. This sequence (which lasts about 45 minutes) is stolen by the splendid Peter O'Toole (Venus), one of several supporting players here. O'Toole has a wonderful time playing the self-serving emperor; his delicious wit on full display. I was sad to see Gulliver leave Lilliput, simply because it meant O'Toole was being left behind.
Anyway, our hero uses a bunch of teeny-tiny logs and teeny-tiny bed sheets to make a raft, and sails away from the land of little people. Appropriately, his next stop is a land full of giants. Now it's Gulliver's turn to marvel at the huge size of others. I liked his observation: "They were all so very ugly...you could see every pock, wrinkle, and boil. So disgusting." No wonder some actor and actresses are nervous about the increasing popularity of large hi-def television screens. I digress, though I'm not sure I ever gressed to begin with.
Gulliver is discovered by a giant farmer played by Ned Beatty (Deliverance), which scares him a great deal. You would be scared if you were plucked up off the ground by a giant Ned Beatty, too. Beatty sells Gulliver to a princess, and the princess gives Gulliver to the queen (Alfre Woodard, Radio). Gulliver is quite startled when he learns that the giants are Communists, and everyone is required to share all of their belongings with everyone else. Unlike actual Communism, the government of the giants works beautifully. It's actually quite a nice place. Gulliver makes a valiant attempt to defend dear old Democracy, but his statements are scorned by the queen. Before he can leave this frightening land, he must do battle with a giant dwarf (just go with it) and some exceptionally large wasps. The special effects in this sequence are quite weak, but kind of endearing in a cheesy sort of way. Overall, this material isn't as much fun as the Lilliput section.
Before long, a giant bird carries Gulliver away to his next stop, a strange flying island. It's a quite entertaining place, filled with strange characters who seem to be simultaneously intelligent and clueless. For instance, two philosophers sit around speculating on the sun's health based on complex scientific facts, but are amazed when Gulliver informs them that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Everyone sinks deep into thought quite easily, and the only way to get someone's attention is to hit them with a gourd. Heh. There are plenty of cheap shots taken at intellectuals here, but in a kind of funny way, not an obnoxious Smart People way. Gulliver then goes to another strange placed called "The Academy," filled with more brainy people (including a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Sir John Gielgud) that have completely lost their grip on reality.
After a while, Gulliver becomes keen to get back home to England, and receives the assistance of a peculiar historian (Omar Sharif, Lawrence of Arabia). One of the historian's peculiar habits is drugging Gulliver, forcing him to summon historical figures such as Alexander the Great from the dead. Gulliver figures out what is going on, and becomes quite cranky. Understandably, he runs away from the historian, seeking help elsewhere. Sharif generates some considerable intensity in this sequence, but it's a bit on the lackluster side.
Things pick up a little when Gulliver is sent to a world of immortal people, where life lasts forever. The only price you have to pay is your eyesight. Being blind for eternity is okay as long as you're immortal, right? Gulliver views this revelation as he views most things in this story: quite disagreeable. Finally, the poor guy lands in yet another strange land, this time populated by powerful animals. On this world, humans are either crazed beasts or domesticated slaves, animals are all-important gods. I used to have a cat that was convinced our own world works that way. It provides a nice final chapter to a story full of engaging odds and ends. The political subtext is particularly strong in this section.
The transfer here is quite disappointing, with lots of scratches and flecks all over the place. It's surprisingly messy for a film less than 15 years old. There's also some severe grain in several sequences. The 2.0 sound is fine, though the Trevor Jones score is surprisingly uninspired. The only extras on the disc are a brief making-of featurette and an interview with Omar Sharif.
The "Gulliver back home" story that is woven into the fabric of the plot between tales of adventure is a bit dull and predictable. Despite a fine performance from an amusingly fatuous and poofy-haired James Fox (looking very much like Piper Laurie in Carrie) as a wicked man attempting to cause a rift between Gulliver and his wife, this sequence feels like nothing more than padding for this long saga. I wish this portion had been cut out, which would have shortened the intimidating 187-minute runtime by a good half-hour. Additionally, as I hinted earlier, Gulliver isn't too interesting. Ted Danson can be a pretty good actor at times (see his recent work in Damages), but he's rather unconvincing here.
One note should be made for families: though most of Gulliver's Travels is very family friendly, one scene in which a group of savages attempt to rape Gulliver is a little inappropriate for this particular version of the story. Keep the fast forward button handy about 160 minutes into the story.
Gulliver's Travels is an inconsistent fantasy, but mostly a likeable one. While I think the definitive version of Gulliver has yet to be made, this one isn't too shabby. It's a fun story that viewers of all ages will probably enjoy.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 187 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Making of Featurette"
* Interview with Omar Sharif