Friday, February 4, 2011

Gulliver's Travels (1996)
UK/USA --- fantasy

Dir: Charles Sturridge

Never has a novel dared to look so close into the nature of mankind with an unflinching depiction of our inward being. Renown Irish satirist and clergyman, Jonathan Swift, placed a great mirror in front of 18th century society and dared everyone who would read his 1726 novel "Gulliver's Travels" to ask themselves the question "Who am I?". While this classic tale has been filmed on more than several occasions, it has almost always focused on one or both of the first two chapters of the novel being "A Voyage to Lilliput" and "A Voyage to Brobdingnag". The most famous version being the Fleischer's animated film in 1939. It wasn't until this 1996 television mini-series that Swift's fully realized vision came to screen with an appropriate international cast and note-worthy special effects.

A co-production of the UK's Channel 4 Television Corporation and America's Hallmark, Jim Henson Productions, and RHI Entertainment Inc, "Gulliver's Travels" stars Ted Danson (coming off of his long stint on the tv series Cheers) as Dr. Lemuel Gulliver. A man, due to financial burden decided to take his practice out to sea. Told in flashback, Gulliver returns to his home after nine years to his wife and young son. Unfortunately, the house has been purchased by a Dr. Bates who has allowed Mrs. Gulliver (played by Danson's real life wife Mary Steenburgen) to stay in the home to keep up housekeeping duties. They find Dr. Gulliver in the barn, as we learn that his strange voyage began with a shipwreck, which apparently landed him on the shores of a land called Lilliput. It just so happens however, Lilliput is entirely populated by human beings who are less than 6 inches high. A father and son discover Gulliver like a beached whale, and soon the military come in droves and bind him for safety. The loopy emperor (played perfectly by Peter O'Toole) welcomes the giant oddity with open arms, as he prizes him as not only an asset of fortune but of war. An almost nonsensical war at that, disputing over which side to break eggs on the little ends or big ends. When they feel they can longer control Gulliver, the Lilliputian military plot to kill him, setting him to flee and find refuge in another land. Meanwhile, Dr. Bates finds Gulliver's regaling of his adventure incorrigible and tiresome and has him committed to a local asylu; namely the infamous Bedlam.

Gulliver then recalls finding land again, this time in a land of giants, where it is he who is tiny and the giants are estimated (according to the novel) to be 72 feet tall. He is found by a farmer and is all too quick to profit from his new discovery as well. The farmer and his family use Gulliver as an oracle of the fields, until he comes to the attention of the Queen of Brobdingnag, who desires to have him for herself. The Queen invites the farmers daughter, Glumdalclitch, as Gulliver's nurse and her royal court marvels at the diminutive Gulliver. She even has a small "doll" house built for him. Her medical physicians poke and prod at him, while he assures them all the while that he is indeed human. The Queen's admiration of Gulliver comes to the quick dismissal of her former dwarf jester (Warwick Davis), and he spends his time trying to get rid of his replacement. Gulliver, however, has a hard time trying to convince the queen that his home in England is a civilized society. This film's version of Brobdingnag has no King, but their conversation of England carries over into this film. By comparison, Brobdingnag seems almost Utopian in nature, and casts Gulliver's descriptions of England's ruling class to be primitive. After evading a provoked battle with a bunch of wasps thanks to the Queen's former jester, eventually, Gulliver conjures up a way to please the Queen by giving her a firsthand demonstration of the practical use of gunpowder. When things literally blow up in their faces, Gulliver becomes dismayed, but is once again spirited away to another land. This time, a bird takes the box he's in and drops him out in the ocean.

The next chapter picks up with Gulliver being rescued by citizens of the floating island of Laputa. Powered and controlled by a giant magnetic lodestone, the hovering island is inhabited by male-dominated flighty intellectuals and dignitaries. Though they study astronomy, mathematics, and technology, they lack basic common sense. In fact, the Rajah of Laputa wars against his wife the empress Munodi (played by Geraldine Chaplin) on land when she refuses to send up brain taxes (food). The film version gives Laputa citizens an Indian/Middle Eastern ethnicity. When the empress disrupts the lodestone by counteracting it with her own magnet pulled by horses, it sends Laputa adrift and trying to help, Gulliver himself falls down to land. He meets with the empress and in their discussion learns of the Academy; an irresponsible collective of thinkers who have total disregard for the rest of the world. Gulliver leaves for the Academy in hopes to find directions home, but only finds more mad scientists so engrossed with their own strange experiments they care nothing of the real world. When Gulliver realizes he won't find any answers there, he leaves and is out in the desolate outskirts when he is picked up by a good Samaritan named Glubbdubdrib, (played by Omar Sharif) who offers him shelter and a ride out to the port where a Dutch ship is set to sail. Gulliver's stay at Glubbdubdrib becomes a little bit of a detour as he learns he has been drugged for days and used by Glubbdubdrib for his blood to resurrect historical figures from an enchanted mirror. Soon, he manages to escape the sorcerer's estate and continue on his journey, but he is captured by soldiers of the immortal struldbrugs. Once there, they invite him in after he offers the giant wasp stinger as a gift. They offer him a drink from their fountain claiming it will retain his youth and he too will be immortal. The one problem he discovers is that they are all blind. He manages to escape once again, making it to a ship bound for sea.

The final voyage is the most controversial and thought-provoking, as Gulliver arrives on the island of the Houyhnhnms (possible anagram for "you humans" and phonetically sounding like "whinny"). The Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses who rule over a race of barbaric humans called Yahoo's. He converses with one of the Houynhnhnms, named Mistress, who goes on to explain to him the rituals and habits of the Yahoo's, while Gulliver once again tries to explain and not necessarily justify aspects of his society; such as wearing clothes. Gulliver spends most of his time learning the ways of the Houynhnhnms and growing ever so seduced by their culture, to the point of hating himself for falling short of his own human nature. Ultimately, the Hounyhnhnms begin to suspect that Gulliver is really no different from the Yahoo's and decide to banish him from the island. It is this section where Swift is accused of being an out-and-out misanthrope.

For anyone who has read the novel "Gulliver's Travel's" and is not so clingy to it with the attitude that a film can't do justice to it, I think they will find this film to be a pleasant tribute to Swift's tale. The tone of the film does go too far into the comedic direction rather than the satiric approach which the book took. Though that can be like walking a tightrope. The performances from most of the cast is top notch, and Danson's voice over firmly allows the audience that leeway of satire, as his credible inflections often feel like that from a man who speaks with authority. A great thanks goes to him for not attempting an English accent.

The film has taken more than it's fair share of liberties. The major addition of a parallel framing story of Gulliver being committed to an asylum is actually noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, it is fitting that this book written in a time of Munchhausen and Quixote, lacks that fidelity of questioning sanity. Especially since Jonathan Swift himself became a strong advocate of the mentally ill, going so far to leaving his entire estate to Ireland's first Mental Institituion. Two, the nature of the book jumps from one place to the next haphazardly, and doesn't work all that well for film.

Swift's tale is one of great thought and reflection on religion, politics, and human beings in general. The aspect of lost societies was fairly popular and disputed in the time of "Gulliver's Travels" publication. Legends of lost continents have survived for centuries such as those of Mu, Lemuria, and the infamous Atlantis, as well mythical lands such as El Dorado or Shangri-La. His use of language is also interesting, as the common theme seems to give all of these societies and people names that rhyme with "drudgery". Even the hovering island of Laputa is a Spanish curse word.

Overall, this version of "Gulliver's Travel's" is going to be difficult to top. The CGI effects in this production is acceptable for its time, and manages to hold up thanks in part to the storytelling and aforementioned performances. Jim Henson's creature shop provided the animatronic giant wasp and some of the settings like Laputa. The sweeping score provided by Trevor Jones, thoroughly memorable as with most of his scores. If you love this classic tale, this is the one not to miss.