Thursday, January 3, 2013

FILM AND FOLKLORE REVIEW: Gulliver's Travels (1996)

A surgeon lost at sea survives as a giant among the tiny Lilliputians, and a pet among the Brobdignagians. Then a mishap leaves him in the dysfunctional courts of the flying island of Laputa, from which he escapes, only to face the terrors and temptations of a necromancer and the immortal Strulbrugs. Finally, he reaches safety and peace in the utopia of the Houynhnhnms, a race of horses who have domesticated men. His journey ends where the story begins, with the trials of returning to England.
“Gulliver's Travels” is a notable example of a work of literature so ubiquitously known and frequently and diversely adapted that it is not difficult to approach as folklore. Most treatments (3 Worlds of Gulliver, by the team of producer Charles Schneer and effects man Ray Harryhausen being among the most notable) deal only with Gulliver's adventures in Lilliput and/or Brobdignag, and are oriented toward children. The 1996 made-for-television adaptation stands out just for covering the further adventures. It distinguishes itself for high production values (including effects that are charmingly “old school” for the 1990s) and an excellent cast. Ted Danson is very effective as Gulliver, conveying the simplicity of the title character, while providing many fine touches, particularly as Gulliver narrates his own story to the people of 18th-century England. The script remains reasonably faithful to the source material (with the episode of the Strulbrugs being the most conspicuous exception), if sometimes more delicate than Jonathan Swift's original and emphatically not “kid-friendly” tales. What is perhaps most commendable about the production is that it conveys not just the humor and satire of Swift, but a quality of seriousness and even sadness at human nature, and what may be the most timeless moral of the story: that the most difficult part of a journey may be coming home.

David N. Brown
Mesa, Arizona

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