Stop me if you’ve heard this before: There’s a young man who’s grown so poor that he can’t afford to feed himself and his elderly mother. So he breaks into someone else’s house, robs the homeowner blind, and then kills him while fleeing in pursuit. This should sound familiar, because that’s basically “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
I won’t pretend that it’s the absolute worst fairy tale out there. Heaven knows the Brothers Grimm wrote stories that were far worse, yet for some reason, none of them stayed in the public consciousness like “Jack and the Beanstalk” has. What’s more, even the most awful of fairy tales usually had some kind of a moral to teach. What the hell kind of moral is there to be found in the story of Jack?
Of course, I’m hardly the first one to notice this. We have Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” the second half of which involves giants coming down to wreak havoc in return for Jack’s actions. Then there was Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story, Brian Henson’s ill-received TV miniseries in which Jack’s modern-day descendant has to go back up the beanstalk to undo the damage his ancestor caused. Just a few weeks ago, an episode of “Once Upon a Time” (S2E13, “Tiny”) reimagined the original story as a tragedy of greed, betrayal, and genocide. I should add that in the process, they turned Jack into a duplicitous beauty whose full name is Jacqueline.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that all the examples I’ve listed either condemn Jack outright or at least bring up the possibility that he was in the wrong. This appears to be a relatively new idea. Over the centuries, several authors have altered the story to say that the giants were themselves murderous, that they pillaged the land below, that they killed Jack’s father, etc. There were countless attempts to clean up the story in such a way that Jack’s crimes were justified, but none of them really stuck. It seemed that we as a civilization had abandoned the idea of casting the giants as genuine monsters and portraying this young immoral trickster as a hero.
Then Jack the Giant Slayer happened.
Though the project started out under D.J. Caruso in January of 2009, he had the project for less than a year before Bryan Singer took it away and brought his buddy Christopher McQuarrie on for a page-one rewrite. There’s absolutely no way to separate Singer from this movie; his name is on all of the posters, he fought tooth and nail to get this project made in spite of so many delays, he even turned down X-Men: First Class in favor of this film.
Singer was also the main source — I’d dare say the only source — of any intrigue that this film had. To this day, I’m amazed that Bryan Singer’s name still carries so much heft. Yes, he directed The Usual Suspects, which was an instant classic if ever there was one. Yes, he helped invent the modern superhero movie with X-Men and the superior X2. But X2 was back in 2003. That was before he made the bloated disappointment that was Superman Returns. He went on to make Valkyrie a few years later, and does anyone remember that film? Didn’t think so.
Aside from his producing work on the awesome Trick ‘r’ Treat and a couple of directing gigs on “House M.D.,” Singer hasn’t really done anything in the past decade to justify his ongoing film cred. In fact, I think it speaks volumes that at this exact point in his career, Singer is going back to the X-Men well for the upcoming Days of Future Past.
Anyway, it bears remembering that Jack the Giant Slayer had terrible buzz going in. The trailers were so uniformly awful — loaded with such painfully forced humor and pitifully bad CGI — that not even the booming tones of Ian McKellen (absent from the finished movie, by the way) could have saved them. It’s also worth remembering that the film stars Nicholas Hoult, who — despite his minor turn in X-Men: First Class and his solid performance in the recent Warm Bodies — is far from a proven anchor for such a CGI spectacle as this.
It also bears remembering that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters landed with a sickening splat just over a month ago. That doesn’t have anything to do with this film, of course, it’s just the latest piece of evidence that the modern “gritty fairy tale” trend in movies is starting to lose creative steam and audience popularity.
But enough stalling, let’s get to the story. In the prologue of Jack the Giant Slayer, we’re told that once upon a time (see what I did there?), a group of mad sorcerers created the magic beans in an attempt to meet God. Instead, their beanstalks only grew to a point between heaven and earth, where the giants live. Before long, the giants developed an addiction to the taste of human flesh and came down to run amok on Earth.
To stop the invasion, dark magic and a giant’s heart were used to forge a special crown, such that the giants would be compelled to obey whoever wore it. With this crown, the great King Erik commanded the giants to go back to their homeworld, just before he had the beanstalks destroyed. When Erik died, he was buried in the royal mausoleum with the crown and the remaining handful of magic beans. In theory, both were to remain safe with him in death.
Flash forward a few hundred years, when the land is being ruled by King Brahmwell (Ian McShane). At his right hand is Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the royal advisor who is of course a deceitful prick. It’s Roderick who raids King Erik’s tomb, hoping to use the beans and the crown to take over the world with his own personal army of giants.
As you may have guessed, Roderick is a hopelessly two-dimensional villain who’s evil purely for the sake of it. He isn’t strong, he isn’t funny, he isn’t particularly smart, he just isn’t any fun to watch. Hell, he isn’t even any fun to hate. For Grimm’s sake, Tucci didn’t bother trying to chew any scenery, which might have at least been somewhat entertaining.
Oh, and just to make matters worse, we have Wicke (Ewan Bremmer). He’s the stupid, useless, annoying, hopelessly unfunny comic relief sidekick whom Roderick keeps around for reasons that are never adequately explained. He dies 45 minutes in, and you will cheer when he does.
Conversely, there’s Elmont, the head of the royal guard. He’s played by Ewan McGregor, the poor bastard. Elmont was a total waste, neither Prince Charming nor Han Solo. He isn’t a tough guy, he isn’t a smart-aleck, he isn’t a wise mentor, he just isn’t much of anything at all. The filmmakers had fucking Obi-Wan Kenobi in their cast and no idea of what to do with him. As a result, McGregor is stuck playing this total bore of a character, visibly struggling for any idea of what to do with him through the whole running time.
Then we have Isabelle, the king’s daughter and love interest. She’s played by Eleanor Tomlinson, a relative newcomer who — to my mind — looks uncannily like a young Cate Blanchett. On paper, this character is hopelessly weak. She’s your standard princess in a gilded cage, forced to marry Roderick for the sake of her security, but she wants to marry for love and go out on adventures and blah blah blaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrggggh!!! This character is so one-dimensional and so cliched that I couldn’t wait for her to shut the hell up.
Equally important, there’s the “treasure test” to consider. For those who are relatively new here, the treasure test is a simple question: If a character was replaced by some inanimate object of great value — something that could not talk or act of its own accord and could not move unless it was being carried by or passed between the other characters — how would the film have been different? Aside from providing the other characters with their motivations and serving as a reward for our protagonist at the end, what did Isabelle bring to this film? As best I can figure, not much. She runs away at the start of the film and she guides Jack through the palace at the film’s climax, but that’s about it. And that realization saddened me a little.
I don’t know why, but Isabelle eventually won me over. For some reason, I honestly wanted to see her rescued. I think a lot of that has to do with Tomlinson, who’s certainly pretty and charismatic enough to serve as a princess. It also helps that though Isabelle may not have done much, she didn’t exactly weigh down the proceedings or outstay her welcome, either.
But most importantly, there’s the fact that Isabelle’s romance arc with Jack just clicked. They may not get much screen time together, but the filmmakers evidently knew enough to make the most of every second they had. That said, the filmmakers may have gone a touch overboard. Not once, but twice in the first act, we see Jack and Isabelle having identical conversations with their respective parental figures at the exact same time. It gets the point across, I grant you, but it’s tacky and contrived as hell nonetheless.
Far more importantly, Eleanor Tomlinson had wonderful chemistry with Nicholas Hoult. The leading man was perfectly cast in his own right, playing an endearing farmboy without getting too sappy about it. With nothing but pure emotion, Hoult gets across the message that true courage isn’t the absence of fear, but overcoming fear. It’s easily the best performance in this film.
As for miscellaneous actor/character notes, I have to give an honorable mention to Ian McShane. His character may have started out as your typical overbearing father/authority figure, but he steps up in a big way toward the end of the film and McShane steps up right along with him. Bill Nighy does an unremarkable job voicing the one-dimensional leader of the trolls (more on them later), but they’re supposed to be inhuman monsters, so I can let that slide. In place of his widowed mother, Jack has an overbearing uncle (Christopher Fairbank) who disappears after the first act and is never seen or mentioned again. Last but not least, Warwick Davis gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. As much as I enjoyed seeing him onscreen again, I wish someone had told Bryan Singer that this was not a good use of his Warwick Davis.
I’ve read some reviews comparing this film to Snow White and the Huntsman, and I can understand the comparison. For one thing, the production design and costume design between the two films look remarkably similar. I honestly thought that the army costumes in this film had been taken directly from the Huntsman set, though I can’t seem to confirm that. Additionally, Jack features Ian McShane and Eddie Marsan, two of Kristen Stewart’s seven dwarves.
There are reviews out there that say Jack is a better film than Huntsman. I would respectfully disagree for two reasons. Firstly, though both films are ultimately failures, at least Huntsman failed while swinging for the fences. It took chances and creative risks that didn’t pan out, which I vastly prefer to a film that fails while recycling cliches ad nauseam and playing it safe. It’s as simple as the difference between Charlize Theron’s evil queen and Stanley Tucci’s dickish royal advisor. I know which one I’d rather watch.
Secondly, say what you will about Huntsman, but the effects in that movie kicked ass. Compare that to Jack, which features some of the worst CGI I’ve seen in any movie this side of the year 2000. To be clear, the film’s design had a great deal of merit. The settings were all designed with a great deal of creativity, and I really like what the filmmakers were going for with the giants. In execution, however, the giants and blue-screen shots all looked laughably fake. Every single one of them. Needless to say, that’s a really big fucking problem for a film called “Jack the Giant Slayer.”
Equally important, the film’s sense of scale was terribly inconsistent with regards to the giants and the beanstalks. There are shots in which the huge goddamn beanstalks should be clearly visible over the horizon, but they aren’t. There’s a scene in which a giant — 50 feet tall at least — comes crashing down to earth from the top of the beanstalk, and the impact barely creates a gust of wind, much less a tremor. Even worse, there are scenes in which these same big and loud behemoths somehow manage to sneak right up behind the human characters without their noticing. That isn’t even getting started on the giants’ uncanny ability to sniff out any human except for Jack, but I digress.
Last but not least, the screenplay to this movie is just plain lazy. It’s cliched, it’s predictable from start to finish, and plot holes abound. The crown is a prime example of screenwriting laziness, as it was clearly invented to be an all-purpose plot device for whatever the filmmakers needed. And then, just to put a cherry on top, the filmmakers tossed in an epilogue so stupid and worthless that it really should have been left on the cutting room floor.
I will concede that Jack the Giant Slayer does have some fun moments. The filmmakers clearly set out to make an epic fantasy adventure, and those intentions shine through at times. A lot of that has to do with John Ottman’s delightful score, though Nicholas Hoult deserves a great deal of credit as well. Unfortunately, this film is sunk by so many miscast actors, painfully flat characters, wretched CGI, and lazy storytelling.
There’s no way I can recommend paying full price for this one, though a home theater viewing would probably make the bad CGI look even worse. Split the difference and see this one in a second-run theater if you’re curious.