Bryan Singer’s latest film, Jack the Giant Slayer (based on the Jack the Giant Killer folktale), joins a steadily growing list of movies that seek to offer alternate tellings of familiar fairy tales, historical figures, or mythological beings. These films rebrand one-dimensional childhood heroes and villains as complicated and multifaceted personalities – locked in a complicated and epic struggle that has been forgotten with time (or intentionally covered up). After all, history is written by the victors.
In this case, moviegoers set out on an adventure with Jack (also of Jack and the Beanstalk fame) – who, in this version, is tasked with rescuing a princess as well as foiling an evil plot that would allow giants to wipe out humankind. Unlike similar tongue-in-cheek offerings, however, Singer is in on the joke and as a result Jack the Giant Slayer does not take itself very seriously. However, does the fan-favorite director present a satisfying combination of whimsy along with visual spectacle to make the film enjoyable for mainstream audiences expecting epic storytelling – not just moviegoers who thrive on campy fairy tale adaptations?
Fortunately, Jack the Giant Slayer delivers an enchanting (albeit sometimes excessive) adventure. The twists and turns of the plot rarely surprise and mainline characters are killed-off without fanfare, but Singer offers enough comical character moments and entertaining action beats to make the film worthwhile – at least for moviegoers who recognize Giant Slayer‘s intentions. In an industry where photo-realistic CGI and gritty drama are becoming the norm, Singer’s fairy tale adaptation is a welcome change of pace – in spite of several obvious flaws that muddle the overall effort. Without question, Jack the Giant Slayer is easy to pick apart – and, for that reason, may be underwhelming to moviegoers that want a more serious adventure tale. However, for better and for worse, the movie embraces the wide-eyed ridiculousness of fabled adventuring – presenting a shallow but harmless moviegoing experience.
Singer’s adaptation follows heroic farm boy, Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who gets pulled into an epic journey up the beanstalk of childhood lore – to a land of imprisoned (and human-eating) giants. After a pouch of magic beans is lifted from advisor to the king, Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), it is entrusted to Jack’s possession. However, before Jack can return the beans to their rightful owners, Queen-to-be Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) ends up on his door – distracting the farm boy from realizing that one of the magic beans is not only missing, it has taken root under his house. Exploding into the sky, the beanstalk carries Isabelle away and it is up to Jack along with the heroic Knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) to rescue her from the giants. Seizing the opportunity to journey up the beanstalk, Roderick joins the quest – shielding his true (malevolent) intentions from the heroes.
The Jack the Giant Slayer story is exceptionally thin – with very little value beyond the core A to B plot progression and the enjoyable character interactions that make it anything but a lighthearted twist on an well-known fairy tale. Yet, at times, the narrative seems to suggest richer ideas were once in play – only to entirely abandon them in the final film. Exploring the notion that history is written by victors, lines of dialogue suggest that humanity might not be entirely innocent and that earlier (bloody) encounters with medieval adventurers could have led to the rage and anger in the giant race. Regrettably, these thematic ideas are fleeting – glossed over for only a moment or two before the giants are relegated to heartless creatures hell-bent on mindless death and destruction.
Fortunately, playful performances from the entire cast create an engaging series of events – despite the flimsy and muddled story. Even though most audience members will predict the main character arcs, Singer is still successful in making the actual journey captivating.
Hoult (X-Men: First Class and Warm Bodies) delivers in another charming role as the titular Giant Slayer and once again balances engaging emotion with intentionally awkward humor. Jack (the Giant Slayer) isn’t a typical muscle-bound hero – which comes as a relief after many other reimagined tales have tried to turn campy source characters into ruthless killing machines. Similarly, Tomlinson’s Isabelle walks a delicate balance between capable heroine and traditional damsel in distress – resulting in a character that serves the core story (about a good natured boy becoming a heroic man) without relying on the usual princess cliches.
The supporting cast is rounded out with quality (albeit cheeky) performances, with equally amusing onscreen characters and action scenes. McGregor and Tucci are a match for the whimsical tone of the film, reveling in satirical heroism and villainy, respectively. The pair spout one-liners and come close to winking at the camera, but their energy carries through the rest of the film, livening interactions and set pieces that, on the surface, would otherwise be very engaging.
Still, if there’s one element of Jack the Giant Slayer that will divide moviegoers, it’s the depiction and physical appearance of the CGI giants. Numerous aspects of the film are intentionally cartoonish, and the giants are no exception – they look like CGI creatures, not over-sized human beings. In certain scenes, the effect works to the benefit of the movie – reinforcing the fairy tale tone where photo-realistic visuals might actually have created an awkward disconnect. Still, the giants are rough-looking with noticeable lag between lines of dialogue and onscreen facial animations – making it hard to tell, from time to time, what emotion the audience is supposed to be reading from an all-digital face.
Any attempt to make the characters more believable and emotive are further stifled by lowbrow body humor gags (i.e. boogers and farting) - which are surprisingly juvenile for a thoughtful filmmaker like Singer – and don’t provide laughs or added tension to warrant inclusion. Ultimately, considering their screen time, the giants are par for the course and successfully advance the core plot – but instead of being nuanced and interesting characters, they are nothing more than adequate window dressing.
Singer filmed Jack the Giant Slayer in 3D and certain sequences do benefit from the added depth – especially when live-action humans and CGI giants share the screen. However, the premium ticket price is only going to be worthwhile for fans of the 3D format – since moviegoers on the 3D extremes (those who prefer subtle in-depth shots or, conversely, in-your-face 3D) won’t find too many memorable implementations of the format this time. It’s a genuine missed opportunity, given the film’s varying scale and environments.
Jack the Giant Slayer is an entertaining tale that successfully balances the straightforward but imaginative storytelling of its source material with big-screen action and CGI effects. In spite of flat characters, a predictable story, and some awkward visuals, the movie is surprisingly entertaining – thanks to a hefty dose of well-timed humor and energetic performances. Jack the Giant Slayer isn’t a thought-provoking re-imagining, but considering the number of fart jokes, it’s pretty obvious Bryan Singer intentionally sacrificed depth for entertainment value at every turn. In this case, the gamble pays off in a brainless but engaging story book adventure.
If you’re still on the fence about Jack the Giant Slayer, check out the trailer below:
Jack the Giant Slayer runs 114 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
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