Jack the Giant Slayer
Director : Bryan Singer
Screenplay : Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney (story by Darren Lemke & David Dobkin)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Nicholas Hoult (Jack), Eleanor Tomlinson (Isabelle), Ewan McGregor (Elmont), Stanley Tucci (Roderick), Eddie Marsan (Crawe), Ewen Bremner (Wicke), Ian McShane (King Brahmwell), Christopher Fairbank (Uncle), Simon Lowe (Monk), Mingus Johnston (Bald), Ralph Brown (General Entin), Joy McBrinn (Old Maid), Chris Brailsford (Blacksmith), Warwick Davis (Old Hamm)
Since Alice, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel have already been up to bat, it is now Jack’s turn to enter the wonderland of the modern, effects-laden blockbuster in Jack the Giant Slayer, the latest in Hollywood’s recent fascination with dusting off old fairy tales and folklore and pumping them up with expansive CGI, ironic humor, and epic battlefield violence. The fit doesn’t always work, as the resulting films end up either too weird, too grim, or too absurd, and Jack the Giant Slayer is really no different, although its chief liability is that it feels too much like yet another entry in an increasingly exhausted Hollywood trend.
Director Bryan Singer, who has worked the comic book genre in two X-Men films (with a third on the way) and Superman Returns (2006), has an eye for the grandiose, and the tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” in which Jack must face all things giant, naturally lends itself to that predilection. His screenwriters, Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After, Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar writing The Usual Suspects for Singer), and Dan Studney (Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical), comprise an odd team, and at times the film feels like it’s playing against itself. The tonal shifts from unironic romance, to self-conscious grotesquerie, to roaring action don’t always flow smoothly, which suggests a film stewed by a few too many hands who weren’t always on the same page.
This is not to say that Jack the Giant Slayer doesn’t have its enjoyable moments, and I can’t help but appreciate its blessed lack of pretension. Singer clearly wanted to make a rousing, old-fashioned movie in the vein of Alexander Korda, but with all the modern bells and whistles, and that is essentially what we have, albeit without that deft Korda touch that made films like The Thief of Bagdad (1940) so memorable. Nicholas Hoult, who you may still be able to catch on a screen next door playing a zombie with an angsty heart in Warm Bodies, stars as Jack, a poor farm boy who pines for Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), the princess of the kingdom where he lives. The film establishes a connection between them from the opening images, in which their respective fathers separately tell them the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, which also provides a sly means of injecting some meta-commentary into the film about the organic nature of storytelling and how our most cherished tales get told and retold to suit each new generation.
The beanstalk is still the outgrowth of magical beans in Jack’s possession, except this time it takes Isabelle up to the land of the giants, which is perched in the sky between earth and heaven. Thus, it is up to Jack, Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the king’s most trusted knight, and Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the weasely older man to whom Isabelle is betrothed, to climb the beanstalk and rescue her. The beanstalk itself is perhaps the film’s most inspired bit of visual imagery: a twisting mass of hulking vines reaching thousands of feet into the sky, it has a true sense of physical heft and weight, especially when it comes down at one point, crashing across the landscape for miles and miles. The same can also be said for the giants themselves, who are an unruly bunch of nose-picking, flatulent thugs with horrible skin, rotten teeth, and soccer hooligan accents. They are led by a two-headed general named Fallon (Bill Nighy), although they are magically forced into allegiance to anyone who wears a special crown, which just so happens to fall into the scheming Roderick’s hands.
This is really all just foreplay leading up to a massive siege on the kingdom’s castle by the giants, who climb down the beanstalk and attempt to reclaim earth, which was previously their home. Singer generates a few good thrills during the battle, playing up the film’s 3D with an almost wickedly childlike sense of glee (especially when the giants start hurling windmill blades and other heavy objects). He also displays a cagey sense of gross humor, such as when one of the giants is preparing pigs-in-a-blanket by literally rolling and then skewering pigs in a blanket of dough (with Elmont being next in line) or anytime the giants kill someone, which they often do by biting off their heads and flinging the body like a tiny ragdoll (although not gory, the film certainly earns its PG-13 rating at times). The orgy of destruction on display is appropriately massive, and while at times the chaos overwhelms any sense of humanity on screen, Hoult and Tomlinson struggle through the carnage just enough to remind us that there is romance afoot. And, if their star-crossed doe eyes fail to captivate, McGregor is conveniently on hand to do something akin to an Errol Flynn impersonation, pumping up the action with a jolly sense of abandon that makes you wonder if the film might not have been better had he been the true star.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema