3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’

Published 1 year ago by

jack giant slayer 3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer is a new fairy tale re-imagining directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men 1&2, Superman Returns), featuring Nicholas Hoult as its namesake: the humble farmboy who scales a massive beanstalk, in order to rescue a princess and protect the kingdom from a vengeful army of giants.

In Screen Rant‘s Jack the Giant Slayer review, our Ben Kendrick breaks down the CGI-heavy storybook adventure’s strengths and flaws, explaining how Singer and his writing staff (including Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie) sacrifice thematic depth and substance in favor of entertainment which is “brainless but engaging.”

What’s more interesting about Jack (for our purposes here) is these shortcomings reflect a growing trend in contemporary cinematic revisions of fairy tales, as the same problems keep popping up over and over. Jack‘s $28 million opening with a $195 million budget aside, these films usually manage a profit and accomplished directors continue signing up for them; not to mention, these folk stories have endured for centuries, so it’s not as though a few lackluster retellings are going to discourage future re-interpretations. So, I’ve decided to outline three potholes that 21st century fairy tale re-imaginings keep stepping into, as a friendly warning for other upcoming films following after them.

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1. Not Enough Focus

Grimm Brother fairy tales and legends allow us to explore our collective fears and imagination about the mysteries of the universe (and ourselves) through fantasy. They feature paper-thin (re: two-dimensional) heroes and villains which serve as the allegorical embodiments of emotions, repressed desires and personal values both admirable and immoral. However, this presents a dilemma for filmmakers: how do you mine the rich content found in these simple fantasy melodramas and still serve up multi-facted representations of characters and stories that are really just meant to work just as glorified metaphors?

red riding hood 3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like Jack the Giant Slayer

Amanda Seyfried in ‘Red Riding Hood’

Well, the answer usually involves mashing together different influences and ideas, resulting in a movie that attempts to cover a lot of ground but ends up not getting much of anywhere. Consider, for example, David Leslie Johnson’s Red Riding Hood script, which tweaks Twilight‘s supernatural romance plot and then combines it with the murder mystery narrative of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow retelling (or, if you prefer, the Hammer Horror films that inspired it). Unfortunately, the result is a watered-down exploration of a young woman’s sexual coming of age, which is then wrapped around a solid, but predictable, examination of fear and paranoia spreading in a gated community.

Snow White and the Huntsman suffers from similar issues, as it often feels like the story is being pulled in different directions by the three credited screenwriters. One moment, we’re watching Snow White retold through Game of Thrones-style court intrigue – the next we’ve entered Lord of the Rings fantasy epic territory that is more concerned with building the world for sequels. As my brother put it (after seeing the movie with me), it’s almost as though the whole thing keeps rebooting itself every 30 minutes or so, in the hopes of turning a simple fable into the foundation for a blockbuster franchise.

Jack the Giant Slayer Nicholas Hoult 3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like Jack the Giant Slayer

Nicholas Hoult is ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’

By comparison, Jack is more self-enclosed. However, what’s equally frustrating is that Singer’s movie frequently begins to touch upon deeper meaning inherent to its story; that is, before either hastily moving forward or developing the ideas half-heartedly. It wastes potential themes such as the importance of handing down principles through stories and legends to the next generation (or the idea of giants as metaphors for anti-faith views), by restricting them to throwaway lines or scenes that go nowhere. Perhaps this is another example of too many cooks in the kitchen, as four different people received story and script credit on the film.

Either way, Jack still attempts to bite off more than it can chew. The difference here is that it keeps spitting stuff back out, only to move ahead and do the same thing with yet another dish. In other words: a bunch of samples don’t add up to a complete meal.

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NEXT PAGE: Superficial Visuals & Weak Themes

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2. Pretty Pictures, Messy Filmmaking

Ravenna Charlize Theron and the Magic Mirror in Snow White and the Huntsman 3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like Jack the Giant Slayer

Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman are both gorgeous retellings of the same fairy tale, with regard to costumes, production values, set designs and visual effects. Problem is, they’re not so well-constructed from a technical perspective when it comes to elements like cinematography and editing. You end up with a lot of moving pictures (translation: individual shots) which are beautiful on their own, but don’t come together to form those engaging sequences that are the essence of great cinema.

Jack suffers from related problems. For example, 3D cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel does a decent job turning the CGI Beanstalk into a set piece that’ll make viewers scared of heights start to feel queasy. Unfortunately, it really does pale in comparison to the Burj Khalifa climbing sequence in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (to use a recent example). The same goes for interactions between the giants and real-life characters, which don’t use the clever mix of practical and digital tools that produced better results in other movies featuring huge creatures and human actors sharing the screen together (see: the Ents in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or certain dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park series).

Jack the Giant Slayer Fallon 3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like Jack the Giant Slayer

Fallon in ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’, voiced by John Kassir and Bill Nighy

In general, the fantasy effects and filmmaking in Jack simply doesn’t scale the heights (sorry) necessary to fully impress as a pure visual experience (ignoring all forms of sound, that is). The screen’s perennially loaded with eye candy – be it CGI spectacle or action befitting a summer blockbuster. However, when you look closer at it all, these shots aren’t as well composed or coordinated together as they could be. Basically, it often feels as though you’re looking at photos taken of cool stuff, not great photos taken of cool stuff.

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3. No Strong Moral Core

mirror mirror featurette 3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like Jack the Giant Slayer

Say what you will about Disney’s animated fairy tale movies from the late 1980s and early ’90s (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc.), but at least they present their moral lessons in a coherent manner. Sometimes – okay, if we’re being brutally honest, often times – those themes are addressed in a heavy-handed manner, but it’s effective and discernible for people of various ages. That’s why the same fairy tales continue to be retold, as storytellers recognize the enduring relevance of their fundamental themes (and how they usually need just a little overhauling to resonate in the present-day).

This issue goes back to the problem of recent fairy tale movies attempting to do so much, they accomplish less than intended. Hence, Red Riding Hood and the recent Snow White movies work reasonably well as proto-feminist retellings, but the films take on young female empowerment and responsibility in what’s become a generic fashion over the past couple decades (as compared to more complex versions in films like The Hunger Games and Brave). By the end of such stories, there is not much to take away other than “Be self-dependent”; again, it’s a fine message, but not one presented as strongly nor made as powerful as it could be.

Jack the Giant Slayer Nicholas Hoult Eleanor Tomlinson 3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like Jack the Giant Slayer

Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson in ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’

Jack falls into that same trap, partly because it fails to properly illustrate how its protagonist is developing inner strength of character (beyond getting over his fear of heights, that is). Jack proves himself to be loyal and brave and his courage pays off in the end – but he reaches that point so easily from an emotional standpoint that it doesn’t offer much of a lesson. The same goes for the film’s side characters, who don’t really work as allegories (ex. the Princess as modern femininity) or enjoy full arcs as properly-realized characters.

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saoirse ronan mary queen scots 3 Problems With Fairy Tale Movies Like Jack the Giant Slayer

Saoirse Ronan in ‘Hanna’

Unlike the acclaimed and original cinematic fairy tale movies released this century (see Pan’s Labyrinth, Hanna), these recent re-imagings don’t give older viewers new substance to chew on while re-visiting familiar stories and themes. Nor, for that matter, are they well-rounded and memorable enough to stick in the minds of younger people being exposed to them for the first time. Basically: these movie re-tellings are disposable, which is the exact opposite of what good fairy tales are supposed to be.

Hopefully, that changes as Hollywood’s latest fairy tale craze keeps going forward. If nothing else, perhaps Jack struggling at the box office will encourage the re-examination of the best way to repackage and resell fairy tale material. Feel free to let us know your suggestions for doing just that, along with any other thoughts you have about fairy tales movies in the comments section.

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Jack the Giant Slayer is now playing in theaters. For a more in-depth discussion of the film, check out the Screen Rant Underground Podcast.

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TAGS: beauty and the beast, cinderella, hansel and gretel witch hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer, mirror mirror, red riding hood, snow white, snow white and the huntsman

18 Comments

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  1. I agree with this article wholeheartedly. The great fantasy films throughout the years didn’t make any of these misteps. I think of the original LOTR trilogy, Princess Bride, even the Wizard of Oz. I realize those tales don’t date as far back as the source material from these recent fairytale adaptations, but they were just done a whole lot better.

    and thanks for mentioning Hanna and Pans Labyrinth!! love those movies :)

  2. The only idea I have was something I posted in the Jack trailer comments section about my take on The Three Little Pigs. Otherwise, I’d rather we have Disney have the monopoly on classic fairytales.

  3. Jack was better than the others listed, and I find it weird that you have a problem with jack being good and courageous easily for the sake of the princess he likes.
    Not every story needs characters to be psychologically conflicted and it wouldve hurt the film, which isnt about jack proving anything to himself but others seeing his worth.

    • Also Hanna wasnt a fairy tale, it just used fairy tale motifs. Which doesnt make it bad but its not a fairy tale but more of a wink/nod to them and avoids the more fantastical elements which buys it more realism which I guess is liked more nowadays.

      And Pans Labyrinth, while a fairy tale, was boring.

      • Hanna showed a good, strong female protagonist though with depth.

        Also, Pan’s Labyrinth was an incredible movie, I know it’s your opinion to hate it and not fact but still, it showed what good modern and original fairytales look like.

        • As for Hanna: I would argue that’s a true re-imagining of a fairy tale, but I admit it really does depend on how you look at it.

        • Did not say hate, said boring.
          Its long, slow and hard to invest in if you dont get attached to the girl or her life like I didnt.
          And its fantasy or use of are more odd than interesting.
          Very Guillermo del Toro.

          • Yeah but boring = hate in a lot of cases.

            I found Avatar boring and thus hate the movie. Same with John Carter (saw it for the first time today, terrible movie).

            • Well Avatar is worth being hated, it be boring too is just circumstance.

          • Also I said nothing of the character Hanna herself, sure shes strong. But dont write Jack off* as being simple.
            What works for one character doesnt for another.
            Jack is a poor farm peasant and Hanna well, is complex.

    • My problem isn’t really that Jack’s good for the sake of the princess or that he isn’t really psychologically conflicted. It’s more that he’s too much of a flat character. That works fine in a short fairy tale but, as a movie, I think he would’ve benefitted from being more fully developed (like the best characters in Disney’s animated fairy tale movies are, for example).

  4. One of the main issues for poor quality is singular focus on money and not integrity and overall lack of heart or genuine feeling. So many are empty emotionless experiences with almost no depth. I blame willingness to swallow any old tripe and not enough vision to create something powerful.

    • Or if something does have meaning, it gets watered down by studio execs who want it to appeal to a wider audience.

  5. I actually liked the Red Riding Hood movie. Not so much the others. Hanna was underwhelming as well. It was purdy though. Think it would’ve been better as a comic honestly.

  6. This movie actually looks quite interesting, it may be the type that my kids will actually like.

  7. Wait… Hanna is a fairy tale?

    What makes a movie a fairy tale and what makes it just a movie?

    For me, a fairy tale has to have some type of magical creature (dragon, dwarf, witch, giant, etc) and maybe a princess involved… to me, Hanna was more like Bourne Identity. I guess you can stretch it with Hanna being the naive princess and Blanchett’s character as the Wicked Witch… but then you can do that with most movies.

    • Hanna was framed to be an espionage re-envisioning of a fairy tale story.

      I break it down in my review: http://screenrant.com/hanna-reviews-kofi-109998/

      • I understand how you got there… but then you can make almost any movie with a female protagonist a “fairy tale”.

        Nikita/Point of No Return
        Resident Evil
        Underworld
        Terminator
        Alien(s)

        Man… all this time I was watching princess fairy tales. :)

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