The most unusual — and unexpectedly entertaining — programming of the current sweeps period is the new four-hour version of Gulliver’s Travels. Everything about this production is surprising, from its choice of Gulliver — Cheers’ Ted Danson in an excellent wig — to its startling fidelity to Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel. Then, too, there’s the fact that it’s on a major network in prime time at all; we’re so used to those trashy, fact-based miniseries, it’s a shock to see an attempt at something requiring imagination on the part of both filmmakers and viewers.
The best thing about this Gulliver is that it’s no ponderous, Masterpiece Theatre-style adaptation. Although directed by Charles Sturridge (he did the ultimate PBS mini, Brideshead Revisited), Gulliver is a big, gaudy, funny production that feels free to give full reign to Swift’s blithe vulgarity.
It is, for example, the only prime-time offering I can think of in which the protagonist puts out a fire by urinating on it. This occurs when Danson’s Dr. Lemuel Gulliver is striding through the land of Lilliput, where he’s the size of a giant. The conflagration he extinguishes (by unzipping after a bout of heavy drinking) had threatened to destroy the royal palace.
Gulliver’s Travels is one of those books whose salient details have passed into the popular culture, but whose hefty text isn’t much read these days. The standard peg for Swift is ”wicked satirist”; the literary critic Marvin Mudrick has observed that Swift is ”the greatest smart aleck in English literature.” Certainly the plot of Gulliver’s Travels is unceasingly clever, as this English doctor tells tales of his journeys — through lands of tiny people (in Lilliput) and gigantic people (in Brobdingnag), on a floating island called Laputa, and in the densely wooded country inhabited by savages called Yahoos.
Teleplay adapter Simon Moore has applied a cinematic structure to Travels: Gulliver, who’s married to Mary (Danson’s real-life wife, Mary Steenburgen), with a son, Tom (Thomas Sturridge), is shipwrecked and thought lost for eight years; when he returns, Mary has had to take a housekeeping job with the creepy Dr. Bates (James Fox), who has romantic designs on her. Bates listens to Gulliver’s recounting of his adventures, declares him mad, and has him committed to Bedlam, the famous English insane asylum. The TV movie cuts back and forth between Gulliver’s suffering in Bedlam and his memories of his adventures.
Danson wisely doesn’t attempt an English accent (instead, he pronounces words very precisely), and his acting limitations begin to show as the four hours proceed. He greets everything with wide-eyed terror — it’s the same look he used to give Shelley Long when she started quoting literature on Cheers. Steenburgen, although much better, is relegated to a minor role until the movie’s final moments. And Alfre Woodard (as the imperious Queen of Brobdingnag), Peter O’Toole (as the fluttery Emperor of Lilliput), and Sir John Gielgud (as the loony Professor of Sunlight) all have great fun in broad, funny cameo roles. The special effects from Jim Henson Productions are state-of-the-art TV (translation: first-rate Muppets quality, second-rate Toy Story).
Swift’s message — that humans are bad, deceitful, cruel, greedy, and awfully stupid — isn’t exactly the sort of thing the William Bennett brigade wants to hear being disseminated over the public airwaves. Which makes this family fare all the more fun.