Swift Kick 

Not quite Lilliputian

Not quite Lilliputian

Just when the recent film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter suggested that Hollywood had no business tackling literature, along

comes NBC’s Gulliver’s Travels miniseries. Airing 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, this fantastic adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s novel shows that it’s possible to take liberties with a classic text without tearing it to shreds.

This filmed edition of Gulliver’s Travels opens with an ingenious framing device: It begins on the dark and stormy night when Dr. Lemuel Gulliver (Ted Danson) returns to his English home after nine years abroad. Things have changed considerably: His son Tom (Thomas Sturridge)—who hadn’t even been born when he left—is now 9 years old, and poverty has forced his wife, Mary (Mary Steenburgen), to keep house for the scheming Dr. Bates (Edward Fox).

But Gulliver has changed even more so. When his family finds him hiding in the stables, he scarcely recognizes them and babbles deliriously about “little people.” Between his addled, astonishing tales and Dr. Bates’ designs on Mary, Gulliver is quickly branded insane and carted off to Bedlam. At this point, the film plays out like a nonstop hallucination, as the scenes set in the present overlap with flashbacks to Gulliver’s overseas adventures. One minute, he’ll be lying on a table in England, and then suddenly a miniature man will walk across his chest. Or he’ll be locked up in his cell in the asylum, and a monstrous bee will crawl across his shoulder.

There’s plenty of humor in Gulliver’s Travels: The scenes with the pompous pygmies of Lilliput and the moronic “geniuses” of Laputa could be outtakes from Monty Python or Terry Gilliam films. But screenwriter Simon Moore also retains some of Swift’s scatological humor: When the Lilliputian palace is on fire, for example, Gulliver makes use of his full bladder to extinguish the blaze.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the script retains Swift’s darker commentary on human pride, ignorance and vice. After hearing Gulliver’s account of English politics and taxation, the enlightened Queen of Brobdingnag (Alfre Woodard) tells him, “I can only conclude that your people are the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that ever nature suffered to crawl upon the face of the earth”—one of the film’s numerous direct quotes from Swift’s text.

Veering from whinnying lunacy to antisocial disdain to tentative tenderheartedness, Danson gets to provide the best dramatic work of his career. His Gulliver is in no way English, and his high diction feels forced, but his accent never sounds as ludicrous as Kevin Costner’s phony lilt in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Mary Steenburgen, who emotes in a quality-of-mercy-is-not-strained style of speech, is only one member of an expert cast that includes Ned Beatty, Geraldine Chaplin and a virtual who’s who of English character actors. As Lilliput’s flamboyant emperor, Peter O’Toole has a grand time, while his sniffing, uptight empress is played by Phoebe Nicholls, who recently turned in a memorably bitchy performance in Persuasion. Omar Sharif has a nicely sinister turn as the magical lord of Glubbdubdrib, and even John Gielgud has a quirky cameo.

Director Charles Sturridge and screenwriter Moore bring impressive credentials to this production. The former shepherded Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to television, and the latter is responsible for the deconstructed spaghetti western The Quick and the Dead. But Gulliver’s Travels mostly bears the imprint of executive producer Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son and heir apparent. In directing the Muppet versions of A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island, Henson has playfully brought classics to the big screen, and the visuals in this film, courtesy of Jim Henson Productions, are cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed.

While children will enjoy the fantastical elements, Gulliver’s Travels isn’t just kid’s stuff. Its disorienting transitions from reality to fantasy give the film a feeling of unbalance, and, as in the book, the slower-paced second half offers less escapist fun than the first. But, remarkably, NBC’s Gulliver’s Travels makes many modifications to Swift’s misanthropic story and gets away with them. Dr. Bates, the asylum, young Tom Gulliver, and the climatic sanity hearing are all additions that manage to remain faithful to the text. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the fact that the film manages a happy ending. Pessimistic and positive, commercial and classical, Gulliver’s Travels offers the best of all possible worlds.

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