Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Movie Review - Gulliver's Travels (1977)

Gulliver’s Travels is, as I am sure you already know, an all-time classic novel by Jonathon Swift, and is one of the sharpest satirical novels ever written. There have been many film / TV versions, few of which have adhered closely to the original storyline. On a compilation we got recently for a bargain basement price, I came across this version. As far as following Swift’s overall storyline goes you can forget it, but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable film.

Featuring Richard Harris (the few other actors in the film have such short parts that they’re really not worth mentioning), who kids may recognise from the first couple of Harry Potter films, this version of Gulliver’s Travels is notable for being one of the first films to ever mix live action and animation. The storyline revolves almost entirely around Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput, the tiny land full of tiny people, where two empires wage bloody war over which end a boiled egg ought to be broken. I’m sure you know the basic story – Gulliver gets shipwrecked on Lilliput, is taken captive by its inhabitants who think he’s a monster (or at least a giant), and slowly tries to gain their confidence – and then… nope, I’m not going to tell you any more.

For the time (1977 – this film is as old as I am!), the animation is quite good, and the way Harris interacts with his drawn buddies is very good most of the time. The characters are all extremely eccentric – from the Emperor who loves his food more than anything else to the strange-looking Diplomatic Minister who helps Gulliver, to the Naval Commander who struck me as a cross between Captain Pugwash and Tintin’s Captain Haddock! Every character here is larger than life, but since they’re cartoon characters this works. The first sequence in Lilliput, when a three man patrol comes across Gulliver’s inert body on the beach following his shipwreck, sets the stage for the rest of the film to follow – they’re like the Three Stooges, only perhaps worse!

The upshot of the way the animated characters are portrayed is that Harris is forced to play the entire film completely straight –he may have been the first ever human foil for a bunch of cartoon characters. But the humour throughout the movie works brilliantly – once I’d got over the initial shock of it being nothing like I thought it was going to be, I enjoyed watching Gulliver’s Travels immensely. It’s a mixture of surrealism and slapstick, with just a pinch of Swift’s inimitable satire mixed in. When you take into account that this kind of live action / animation had very rarely been done before, it stands as quite an impressive achievement. It’s certainly still enjoyable for either children or adults currently going through their second childhood.

However much as I like this movie, there's one thing I really dislike about it - the songs. The theme tune gave me a headache and sprung up unbidden at several points in the film. And Richard Harris sings. The problem with this is that Richard Harris cannot sing. It’s horrible – definitely not a high point in our Richard’s career!

You may have problems getting hold of this title – I think your best bet is in a collection, though of course some online stores may still stock it as an individual item. If you have kids I think it’s well worth getting. (Ditto if you are a kid in an adult’s body.) Parents will also like the way Gulliver refuses to use his superior size and strength to his advantage against the Lilliputions but prefers instead to use diplomacy.

It’s a nice little film, and if you can put up with the awful songs, perhaps a great one!

(Incidentally the mini-series of Gullivrt'd Travels starring Ted Dansen and a whole host of stars is excellent, and is a much more authentic version of Gulliver's Travels.)

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