Lemuel Gulliver (Ted Danson) is a doctor who goes missing at sea, leaving pregnant wife Mary (Mary Steenburgen) behind. Eight years later, he turns up, disheveled and seemingly mad - babbling about his adventures in the lands of the tiny Lilliputians, the giant Brobdingnags, the floating island of the intellectual Laputa, and the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent, talking horses who have to deal with the Yahoos - a race of bestial humans - among many other adventures. The not-so-good Dr. Bates (James Fox), who has designs on Lemuel's wife, has Gulliver incarcerated in a mental institution, and Lemuel, Mary, and son Thomas (Tom Sturridge) must find a way to prove his sanity.
A splendid adaptation of Jonathan Swift's satirical novel, this film is a magnificent adaptation on so many levels: the story, the satire, the characters, the visuals, the brilliant cast. It's simply a treat to watch, and it's almost amazing considering that it was a made-for-TV film.
The film does a brilliant job of capturing Swift's vicious satire, which cuts like a hatchet through British society of the time, but still resonates today. The wise Brobdingnags and the Houyhnhnms are almost perfect individuals who find it virtually impossible to understand why Gulliver speaks with such pride of the vices and corruptions of his society. The scenes where Gulliver struggles to prove himself different from the Yahoos are perhaps the best, with biting satire in describing how they pick their leaders ("they seem to pick the worst among them. . . who rules until they find someone even worse"), go to war ("We only go to war for a very good reason - such as they are weaker than us, or we want all of their land"), etc. The scenes involving Laputa are also effectively done - the intellectuals are so wrapped up in their specialized fields that they have no time for anything else, and really possess little common sense. And the addition of the asylum plot line enhances the story greatly - Dr. Bates is truly nasty character, and when he gives a speech to the inquiry on Gulliver's alleged vices, it's quite clear that he's describing his own faults.
The film makes use of beautiful, and fairly convincing CGI effects depicting the very diverse settings of the novel with great effect. The contrast of sizes is done in a very skillful way, and all of the worlds depicted in the story are convincing in their own way. The cinematography (particularly that concerning the asylum) and the costumes are brilliantly done. The editing of the present with Lemuel's memories is a device which could be awkward, but works very well.
The cast is truly wonderful; a veritable who's-who of British and American talent. Ted Danson gives an excellent, multi-layered performance as Gulliver, showing effectively his transformation from a person bewildered by his strange surroundings, to the lunatic state he was in when he reappears, to his rational, intellectual personality at the end. Most well-known for his work on sit-com, Danson shows that he's more than just Sam Malone with this wonderful serio-comic performance. Mary Steenburgen is effective as his wife, and James Fox is absolutely repulsive as Bates. The rest of the cast is made up mostly of cameos, with Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Warwick Davis, Kristin Scott Thomas, Geraldine Chaplin, Alfre Woodward, Edward Fox, and Sir John Gielgud being the most memorable - but even the smallest parts are very well-played.
While not 100% faithful to the book, "Gulliver's Travels" is a triumph of story and images. It's not to be missed.
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