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.
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?
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.
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.
2. Pretty Pictures, Messy Filmmaking
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).
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.
3. No Strong Moral Core
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 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.
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.
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.