They Slay ‘Giants’, Don’t They?
Jack: What do you suppose is up there?
Elmont: I never suppose, I simply prepare for everything.
Elmont: I never suppose, I simply prepare for everything.
There is something admirable about Jack the Giant Slayer’s decision to play itself straight. It has been over 25 years since The Princess Bride, among other films, hit theaters and presented a satirical take on the fairy tale adventure genre, but ‘Jack’ doesn’t go for that angle. Instead, the film is a straightforward adventure tale that utilizes state-of-the-art special effects to present a new take on the “Jack and the Beanstalk” legend. It is unfortunate that the film is not better. I would say it is decent overall, as the film has a few things going for it that I enjoyed, including some of the performances and the overall look of the film. However, with the film feels awkward in being so straightforward, as if everyone involved wished they were in a more humorous or colorful film and it is this unevenness that takes away from my enjoyment of it overall.
This fantasy begins with a story being told about how an ancient war between man and giants was ended, once the gateway to the world of giants was severed and man also found a way to control them. We are then introduced to a young farmhand, Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who is noble in spirit and loves a good adventure story. His adventure begins when he happens to receive some magic beans in exchange for a horse, while at the market. A number of things happen by chance, which lead to Jack getting one of the beans wet, while it happens to be under his house at the very same time that Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) happens to have run away from her kingdom and arrived at Jack’s house for shelter. The result is an enormous beanstalk lifting Jack’s home, with Isabelle inside of it, high into the sky and into the land of giants.
After learning what has happened, the King (Ian McShane) sends a group of his men to climb the giant beanstalk and bring back his daughter. This group includes Elmont (Ewen McGregor), leader of the King’s elite guard; Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the King’s advisor; and Jack, who feels he has a responsibility for helping to save the princess. Along with several others, this group heads up the beanstalk, only to discover that the ancient legends are true. Of course, there are those in the group who may already know of the existence of giants and have plans of their own.
I want to weigh the bad against the good, so I will start on the good side and mention something that I don’t think will get a lot of credit. John Ottman, a frequent collaborator for director Brian Singer, worked on the editing of this film, but also the score, which I found to be quite lively and entertaining. As the film started out, I was put into an adventurous sort of spirit based on the music I was hearing. It may not go down as a memorable score, but it is the kind of thing that belongs in a film like this.
Being memorable is a factor that unfortunately plays into how this film stacks up. Bryan Singer has, once again, found himself at the head of a near $200 million film, but that does little to set it apart from other, less expensive, and more enjoyable fantasy adventures. The film has little to make it edge out as different from other fantasy films, aside from getting to see an army of giants in place of whatever fantastical threat we have seen in other films. The plot is largely predictable, which eliminates a lot of the possible suspense, and the film takes its time to build up to more exciting moments, which would not be a problem if the characters involved were more interesting, but they are not.
To address the characters, I will say that I like Nicholas Hoult as the lead character. Between this film and Warm Bodies, I am happy with him getting lead roles, even if he continues to find a way to wear a hoodie, given that he has done so in both of these films. He is a likable Jack and spirited in a way that is not too earnest, given that he’s in a ‘hero’s journey’ story. I wish there was more to say about Eleanor Tomlinson, given that she is quite fetching and fine in her role, but having her say that she’s not just helpless girl that needs rescuing, only to have her become just that was unfortunate. McGregor fairs a bit better, in an ironic sort of way, given that we have Obi Wan playing a Han Solo-type role, but he only gets a few moments to show that he’s having fun. Somewhat disappointing was the presence of Stanley Tucci and Ian McShane, as neither really got a chance to do the things that, as actors, they are great at doing. Tucci was nowhere near his most conniving and McShane’s ability to bring a steely cool to his character was not present.
The issue that I think is responsible for holding this film back is its production history. I am aware that this film has been in development for quite some time and has changed hands as far as directors and screenwriters go. As a result, while I do not think it was a case of people not wanting to ‘be there’ for the film, I do think that many involved were on different pages as far as understanding what kind of film to go for was concerned. For instance, Jack the Giant Slayer is rated PG-13 and while the film is bloodless and seems to skew for a more family-friendly vibe, I do think there are a lot of dark elements in this film, regarding the deaths of certain characters and other implications. Another example involves the straightforwardness of the film, as mentioned. There are a lot of chances for this film to really go for it on the level of dark humor, which could have put it in the range of something like the film Stardust (Princess Bride Dark, as I call it), but every time ‘Jack’ gets close to hitting some comedic beats, it pulls itself back. This restrained adventure film could have used a little more courageous knights backing up its screenplay and tone.
It is a bit of a shame, because I could almost feel the instances where screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie injected his sensibilities into the original script. There are several times when ‘Jack’ could have gone for a more fun approach to what it was presenting. Take the giants. There are a lot of ways to have made the giants far more interesting as characters, but the film never allows us to learn more about the dynamics between them. We have the leader, voiced effectively by Bill Nighy, and a number of supporting giant characters, named Fee, Fi, Fo, and Fumm, among the many others, but that’s all we really know. Would an entire film focused on these characters instead of the humans made for an interesting twist? Perhaps, but that is not the issue. The real issue is that this film is basically overstuffed with uninteresting characters and the near-two hour running time feels longer because of this.
I did mention that I wanted to balance the good and the bad, so I am sorry if that hasn’t been more apparent, but before wrapping up, I can say something about the visuals. The film does look expensive, if that can be called a compliment. Yes, the giants are CG creations, but they have unique designs and fit in the world that this film has created. Some seem to complain about this, but I am not sure what the alternative would have been. If the 60s version, Jack the Giant Killer, had CG to utilize, the filmmakers would have easily gone that route, just as Singer has done here. The worlds created are good looking as well, evoking the mood of something like King Kong’s Skull Island. I chose not to see the film in 3D, so I am not sure how muddled the nighttime scenes, featuring lots of rain and beanstalk growth, look in 3D, but I can say that the film does appear to have been shot to incorporate the 3D element in a few instances. Additionally, the digital photography lends the film a unique visual aesthetic, as far as the cinematography is concerned.
I basically gave a checklist in regards to the visuals, even though this is a film about spectacle, but that really seems to be the most that matters. Again, I do think that people ‘tried’ in this film. It is certainly not an outright failure to the cinematic community or anything like that; I just think that the film lacks a clear center in terms of having everyone on board to make the same movie. It is most notably straightforward in its approach to being an adventure story, but at the same time, it loses a lot of flavor by not having more fun with its material. As a result, Jack the Giant Slayer does not end up being giant fun, but it was more enjoyable than sitting on your tuffet and doing nothing.