There’s no magic in this beanstalk, and viewers foolish enough to spend money on tickets are likely to feel as cheated as Jack when told he’s been swindled out of a horse and cart for a few worthless beans. The root of the problem lies in a fatal uncertainty about exactly what JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is supposed to be: a grim fairy tale, a light-hearted adventured, or an epic LORD OF THE RINGS knock-off. Whatever the intent, with its British flavor and oddball mix of humor and horror applied to a fanciful childhood tale, the film recalls JABBERWOCKY (1977). The misbegotten result would seem to suggest that only Terry Gilliam should direct Terry Gilliam films. (After all, if he couldn’t get it right, why should we expect anyone else to?)
The jumbled screenplay (credited to four different writers) mixes in bits of “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the “King Incognito” plot device (in which a royal personage takes on the guise of a peasant in order to get a street-level view of the kingdom). There is also a love story and a villain plotting to overthrow a kingdom, and needless to say, there is a third-act ogre battle.
If this sounds like more than enough to fill up an entertaining movie, then I am not doing my job, because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER feels empty – of warmth, romance, humor, and most especially wonder. The exposition plods; the jokes fall flat; the adventure stalls; and the love story withers on the … beanstalk, I guess.
Director Bryan Singer is undoubtedly talented, but he does not have the required deft touch for this sort of thing, nor does his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The opening prologue is a cut-rate version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, telling us what we need to know without making us care. The “clever” cross cutting between Isabelle the Princess and Jack the farm boy foreshadows their eventual union, but the parallels are ridiculously exact and leave the end result in absolutely no doubt, so that the love story feels over before it begins.
Unable to install a Sense of Wonder into the proceedings, Singer and McQuarrie eventually resort to visceral shocks. Giants (whose visages are impressively detailed if not cleverly designed or particularly expressive) munch and crunch their victims, both animal and human, which seems a bit daring (though not explicit, thanks to the PG-13 rating), but in the end it amounts to little more than gratuitous titillation, something seen and then forgotten in time for the happy ending.
In a way, this points up the difficult of transferring fairy tales to the screen. The strength of the original lies in its simplicity and in its literary form: terrible things happen – as when, for example, the Big Bad Wolf devours the first two of the Three Little Pigs – but those deaths are abstract and symbolic on the page, a warning that bad behavior leads to bad ends, while the audience identification figure survives by doing the right thing. The characters are archetypal, without distinguishing details to bring them to life in a way that would make them mourn their demise. Children can enjoy these stories without being traumatized, enjoying the thrill of fear and the cathartic satisfaction when their hero triumphs, often by exactly a grizzly retribution on the villain – a safe, simple morality tale that works precisely because there is no gray area to cloud the issue. Movies, which usually at least attempt to create individual characters have it a lot tougher; the visceral impact is stronger, eclipsing the moral point, which in any case is usually not profound enough to warrant being expanded beyond a few pages.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER certainly has little to say that would suffice to justify the running time. Unless you think it is profound wisdom to opine people of lowly station may aspire to something bigger. Or that a princess should get to know her kingdom. Or that her father shouldn’t marry her off to a scoundrel. Strangely, for all its attempts to build Eleanor up as a strong female lead, her role remains that of a damsel in distress; her appearance in armor is just another form of bling, not indicating that she is actually going to do anything.
But wait, not all is lost. Although romantic leads Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson are undermined by the script insistence on keeping them bland (Hoult made a much better lover when he was a zombie in WARM BODIES), the supporting cast shine through. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the princess guard, Elmont; his confident smile hits just the right tone – almost tongue-in-cheek, but not quite. Ian McShane is an impressive king. Bill Nighy provides an intimidating voice for the lead giant, General Fallon.
Best of all is Stanley Tucci as the scheming Roderick. In fact, he is too good. He makes you hate him so much you want to see him dispatched with – well – dispatch, but if and when that happens, what else has the movie got?
Well, the film does have that colossal confrontation toward the conclusion, when the giants rain down on humanity like organic meteors. The siege is reasonably well done because it relies not only on visual flair (giants hurling burning trees over the castle walls) but also on at least halfway believable depictions of how a human army might attempt to hold off a horde of giants. Truthfully, a bit more could have been done with this (showcasing – for example – how leverage might be applied by a smaller adversary to topple a larger foe), but at least the screenplay pulls off an interesting variation on “Chekov’s Gun” (you know, the one that’s loaded in the first act and therefore must be fired in the third) – in this case, a leftover magic bean that Jack puts to good use at a crucial moment.
As is almost obligatory these days, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is being presented in 3D engagements. Although officially not a post-production conversion, the film often looks like one. The early quiet scenes (of our lead characters as children, listening to bedtime stories) do provide a nice sense of depth, as the production design offers a genuine fairy tale ambiance. But once Jack and the Princess grow to young adulthood, and the action-adventure elements take over, Singer opts for camera angles and lens choices that create a resolutely flat look, with only a mild separation between the characters and the backgrounds. In a few cases, when we see human from the POV of giants looking down, the results are noticeably bizarre, with the human form stretched to ridiculous proportions, suggesting Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is another sad example of a big-budget movie with all the production value Hollywood can offer (including a fine score by John Ottman) but little in the way of inspiration. If not for the spark of life provided by the cast, the film would be dead as a diver after leaping off the rocky cliffs of the giant’s land in the clouds. In striving to be big in execution, the film feels small in imagination – a fact strangely underlined in Singer’s occasional choice of downward camera angles that lend a diminutive-looking stature to the giants. Taking something meant to be large and making it look small is no great accomplishment. If, instead, Singer had taken Warwick Davis (who shows up in a bit part) and cast him as a giant – now, that would have shown at least a touch of wit.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; story by Darren Lemke & David Dobkin. A production by Warner Brothers Pictures, New Line Entertainment, Legendary Pictures. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Warwick Davis, Bill Nighy.