Posted on Friday, March 1st, 2013 by Angie Han
In Jack the Giant Slayer, Bryan Singer engages in the time-honored tradition of taking a classic fairy tale and reshaping it to fit the times. Current trends being what they are, that means turning the film gritty and (relatively) realistic, with plenty of Lord of the Rings-style action.
Screenwriters David Dobkin and Darren Lemke take the basic touchstones of Jack and the Giant Beanstalk — the poor farm boy, the magic beans, the scary giants — but introduce several brand-new elements to the story. In this version, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) heads upward to rescue a beautiful princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) and stop her evil betrothed (Stanley Tucci) from taking over the kingdom. It’s a version of Jack that’s never been told in all the centuries that the character has been around. So why does it all feel so tiresomely familiar?
The film gets off to a promising start. Two intercut scenes show a royal family and a peasant family engaging in the same bedtime story ritual, elegantly linking together kid versions of Jack and Isabelle (Tomlinson) while reflecting on the unifying power of myths. The lovely sequence sets up Jack as a fairy tale that is itself about fairy tales, and therefore may have something interesting to say about the recent wave of fairy tale-inspired works.
Then the movie skips ahead ten years, and alas, is revealed as just another CG-heavy fantasy epic. As Jack, Hoult is just as sweet and smart and brave as a young hero of an adventure film ought to be, but lacks any edge to distinguish himself from the dozens of other such characters we see each year. At least he has agency, which is more than can be said for Isabelle. Though the film takes care to establish her as a bold, adventurous type a la Merida in Brave, in practice she’s more like the Maltese Falcon or the Allspark — a MacGuffin to be lost and found and passed around for plot purposes.
The visuals, too, are disappointingly standard. Singer deserves credit for giving each giant a unique look, but it’s never possible to forget we’re watching CG confections and not real characters. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that I caught the film in IMAX, which made the picture look bleary and stretched out. (My screening was also 3D, and as far as I can tell the extra dimension added absolutely nothing.) But all the technical improvements in the world wouldn’t make the visuals more creative. A magical sky world populated by fearsome monsters should be the perfect opportunity for bizarre and breathtaking sights. Instead, Jack offers a pleasant state park populated by kinda gross-looking creatures.
That’s not to say the film is devoid of highlights. Particularly in the first half, Jack benefits from a playful sense of humor. Ewan McGregor lays on his trademark charm as Elmont, the dashing and witty captain of the royal guard. Tucci milks his cartoonishly evil villain for all he’s worth. Jack’s heroism stems as much from resourcefulness as athleticism, so there’s entertainment value in seeing how he outwits creatures eight times his size. But as the stakes get higher, the sense of fun recedes. By the end, we’re left with a deadly serious CG battle sequence that could’ve been lifted straight out of Lord of the Rings or any of its many imitators.
Singer is a very competent director, and Jack is a film that goes down easy. All of the characters are perfectly likable — except for the villains, who are helpfully easy to hate — and the plot moves along at such a sure, even clip that tonal inconsistencies are smoothed out and dull plot points are glossed over. If you have two hours to waste this weekend, Jack is a totally painless way to spend them. But it’s also not a film that stands out in any way, shape, or form.
I had a far better time at Jack the Giant Slayer than I did at Snow White and the Huntsman. But I can still remember striking images and splashy moments from the latter, whereas Jack started fading from my mind the moment the credits rolled. The whole point of reinventing a fairy tale should be to, well, reinvent it. Dressing it up with generic CG and slapping on some familiar genre tropes doesn’t count.
/Film rating: 5.5 out of 10.0