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.
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