Despite its violent and often grotesque imagery, there’s an underlying innocence and sweetness to Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer, a well-intentioned fantasy adventure that’s refreshingly aware of the deep-rooted appeal of fairy tales in the first place. This isn’t some hyperkinetic, incoherent action movie that’s all brawn and no brains - unlike the reprehensible Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters from earlier this year. Rather, “Jack” knows about and recreates the excitement, giddiness and romanticism of being a young child, tucked in under the covers at night, who’s about to hear his parents read him a bedtime story, and those indelible feelings of warmth and pleasure that go along with it.
Movie Review: Jack the Giant Slayer
By Matthew Huntley
March 11, 2013
With that in mind, the movie is probably best reserved for younger viewers. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it to anyone over the age of, say, 13, because the material, or the way it’s executed, just isn’t all that inspiring or original. Don’t get me wrong; if I was a kid, I’d feel like Jack the Giant Slayer is a near perfect adaptation of what I was reading in grade school. But from an adult perspective, its allurement is limited and unfortunately doesn’t transcend the ages.
The movie is a big budget adaptation of the English folktale Jack and the Beanstalk, about a humble farm boy named Jack who trades his cow for a sack full beans, which, unbeknownst to him, are magical and have the ability to sprout into a gigantic beanstalk that links Earth with the castle of a man-eating giant. The same premise is more or less kept intact with Jack the Giant Slayer, which finds the 18-year-old Jack (Nicholas Hoult) exchanging his horse for the beans from a desperate monk (Simon Lowe), who is one of few who knows the beans’ true power and therefore wants to protect it.
We’re aware of the beans’ potency, too, since the movie opens with a young Jack hearing the tale about how they were created by dark magic, even though his father (Tim Foley) tells him it’s just a story. But Jack knows better. In flashback, we see them sprout into a beanstalk that leads up to the murky world between Heaven and Earth, where a whole race of ugly giants lives. Years ago, the mammoth beings climbed down from their land and wreaked havoc on the Kingdom of Cloister, but Erik the Great (Craig Salisbury) was able to forge an enchanted crown out of the hearts of one of the fallen giants and used it to control them and send them back from where they came. For many years, peace and harmony were maintained.
Jack isn’t the only one aware of this legend. Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is told the same story by her mother, the Queen (Tandi Wright), who thinks it’s right that her daughter seeks out adventure so she’ll be better informed of how the world works. But King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) is naturally overprotective of his daughter and believes in tradition and propriety, which is why he arranges for Isabelle to marry the much older Roderick (Stanley Tucci), not knowing Roderick has uncovered the remaining beans as well Erik’s crown. He has evil intentions to command the giants and rule over all the land.
After Jack trades his uncle’s horse for the beans, the monk strongly advises him not to get them wet, but there wouldn’t be a movie if he didn’t, and so a beanstalk sprouts from underneath Jack’s house, sending it high up into the sky. Isabelle happens to find herself there after running away and she’s kidnapped by the giants, leaving Jack, Roderick and the king’s knights, led by Elmont (Ewan McGregor), to rescue her. Eventually, the story leads up to one of those grandiose battle sequences in which the giants charge onto the castle, the likes of which we’ve seen in countless other fantasy movies.
That’s really the problem with Jack the Giant Slayer: despite the fidelity it pays to the spirit of the source material, Singer allows the modern fantasy conventions and warfare to overshadow it. Part of me wondered why there wasn’t just one giant versus a whole herd of them. Perhaps having a single enemy might have given the movie’s three screenwriters the opportunity to come up with some spunky, battle-of-wits dialogue between Jack and the Giant. That approach would have been bolder and probably more interesting.
But then, the audience would have been denied the climactic battle sequence and many other digitally rendered giants. That would have been okay by me since it’s been done before, and better (see the latter two Lord of the Rings pictures). I’m not necessarily asking for a straight-up adaptation of the folktale, but why not distinguish it from the norms of the genre? And if you’re going to have a whole slew of giants, why make them all evil and power hungry? As individual characters, they’re hardly developed beyond elephantine goons with insatiable appetites and disgusting hygiene.
The movie reportedly cost between $150-$200 million to produce, which isn’t all that surprising given the number of special effects, but I was sadly underwhelmed by the visuals. Perhaps if the story had allowed the filmmakers to utilize them in a more meaningful way, they might not have come across as so dry, flat and clunky. Perhaps I bring a personal bias to the table because of the impression the graceful, elegant illustrations from fairy tale books have left on my mind.
Like I said, I can see kids getting a much bigger kick out of Jack the Giant Slayer than I did, and I’m pretty sure I would have liked it a lot more at a younger age. However, as an adult, I wouldn’t categorize it as a good family movie, because a good family movie is one that appeals to all members of the family. But it is a good kids’ movie - charming, romantic, tastefully done, with strong, positive messages. Kids, with their limited experience, also have the luxury of not knowing it’s derivative of so many other fantasy movies. Adults unfortunately do not, which is why we’re more apt to brush it off. Oh, to be a kid again, when not knowing certain things made life that much sweeter and easier.