Gulliver's Travels, Rob Letterman, 90 mins, (PG)

Some stars go to any length to be massive. Jack Black is merely overblown in a poor adaptation
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The Independent Culture

Jack Black's sideline rock band is called Tenacious D, and he's certainly tenacious in milking his screen persona. Black was priceless in School of Rock as an overweight, underachieving, eternal adolescent blowhard, but the act has outstayed its welcome.

Despite attempts to rebrand himself as a mainstream all-rounder, Black seems doomed to remain a cartoon character in fleshy form. Lately, in fact, he's seemed most at ease as a talking cartoon animal, the bamboo-guzzling Kung Fu Panda.

Appropriately, Black's latest live-action vehicle has been entrusted to a CGI animation specialist, director Rob Letterman (the lamentable Shark Tale, the value-for-money Monsters vs Aliens). Gulliver's Travels is essentially a Hollywood panto in 3D. You'll get the gist from the poster image of Black's bulky frame tied up by miniscule people – the same sight gag to which Jonathan Swift's satire has been boiled down for nearly 300 years. Black's Gulliver works in the mailroom at a New York newspaper, and has only three interests in life: Star Wars, Guitar Hero and the paper's travel editor (Amanda Peet). To impress her, he plagiarises an online article from Time Out and fools her – because, you know, big-shot New York journalists are notoriously lazy about fact-checking – into sending him on a solo mission to the Bermuda Triangle.

Once there, a waterspout dispatches him to his beachside bondage date in Lilliput – a Ruritanian Legoland England, ruled by Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate, with Emily Blunt as their daughter. Gulliver extinguishes a palace fire with a stream of piss (the crassest joke in the film, and guess what? It comes straight from Swift). As a result, he's hailed a hero and spins the little people a lot of big lies about his status at home (in the film's one decent line, he's asked, "Don't you miss your subjects, and the White House, and the Millennium Falcon?"). There's one good visual set-up – the massed workers of Lilliput seem to toil on a vast construction project, but in fact they're brewing Gulliver's morning coffee. At least, it's a good gag until you start thinking how much design work and CGI computing power went into it.

Among the support cast, Chris O'Dowd's preening baddie steals the show with his affably clueless bluster, and Emily Blunt is good as a primly soppy princess ("It is too late! I am kidnapped!"). Of the other Brits, who presumably came in a budget package with the UK locations, Connolly and Tate do next to nothing and James Corden even less, occasionally looming sullenly at the edge of frame.

This sort of undemanding comedy, with real actors used as special-effects puppets, tends to look these days like a poor replacement for all-CGI anim-ation, which invariably packs more pizzazz and humanity. Gulliver's Travels feels a bit cheap and cheerful – only not that cheap, and certainly not that cheerful. The ropeyness is exacerbated by the scandalously cynical product placement, Fox properties (Avatar, Titanic, Star Wars) getting special prominence. For wit and imagination in warming over an old favourite, you're better off with your local production of Babes in the Wood.

As for the star, he gamely shakes his belly and shouts "Part-ayyyyy!" which looks increasingly undignified in a 41-year-old. "But what about my movie career as a jolly blustering rockn'roll fatman?" Mr Black might ask. Well, as they say in pantoland, "It's behind you!"

Next week

Jonathan Romney revels in the deathless mysteries of the Bogart classic, The Big Sleep

Jonathan Romney: Film 2010

Best from the US It was Hollywood's least inspiring showing in ages, and the US independent sector was hardly better. But there were a few bright spots. The Social Network caught the tone of the times and also cast an old-fashioned vote for the pleasures of talk, talk, talk. The Kids Are All Right was a modest, funky triumph for the comedy of ordinariness. However, my American favourite was Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, a gem of elegant cynicism in the Billy Wilder tradition.

Best of British Another Year, right, was vintage Mike Leigh - and I loved The Arbor, Clio Barnard's experiment in genre-bending social history and family portraiture.

Best Genre Films My vote goes to Splice – Vicenzo Natali's creepily Freudian Frankenstein story – and Rodrigo Cortes's ingenious Buried, 95 minutes in a coffin, which wins my "I'm A Film Critic, Get Me Out of Here" Award for best use of claustrophobia.

Best Comeback This goes to director Alain Resnais's luridly exuberant Wild Grass. When did you last see an 88-year-old have this much fun with hot colours and a crane?

Bad Sex Award This one has to be shared by Greenberg and Somewhere, in which Ben Stiller and Stephen Dorff respectively declare LA an international Cunnilingus Disaster Zone.

Duds of the Year Britdud: Ricky Gervais's sneery, stolid Cemetery Junction. Prestige Auteurduds: Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, with a script and a lead performance (Russell Crowe) hewn from solid oak; Woody Allen's barely functional Whatever Works; and for sheer am-I-not-an-artist pomposity, Francis Coppola's latest vanity project Tetro.

Breakthrough Performances of the Year Edgar Ramirez was marvellous as the shape-shifting Carlos; and Sylvie Testud, after long service in French cinema's Best-Kept-Secret Brigade, was the making of Lourdes.

Best Film Not Yet Released in the UK (and why not?) Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy is a mesmerisingly creepy tale of dark deeds on Russia's back roads, like a vodka-steeped Deliverance. Distributors, shift yourselves.

Film of the Year Tilda Swinton went alla Milanese for I Am Love (director Luca Guadagnino), an emotionally resonant, stylistically flamboyant, unfashionably opulent reinvention of the melodrama tradition. The food looked pretty appealing, too.

Also very special were: Dogtooth (Yorgis Lanthimos), Mother (Boon Joon-ho), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Love), Carlos (Olivier Assayas), Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois), Lourdes (Jessica Hausner), The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel), The Bad Lieutenant (Werner Herzog) and – because it ain't a movie year without Pixar – Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich).

RIP It was the year to bid adieu to French New Wave founding fathers Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, and raise a schnapps to Bruno Schleinstein, aka Bruno S, star of Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and cinema's greatest ever outsider actor.