Jack the Giant Slayer serves as an example of today’s Hollywood, a festival of computer graphics waging war in 3-D environments leaving us very little to judge or digest. By the time it’s over we can only hope the performances have in some way managed to help us believe the world we’re seeing on screen and the effects aren’t so intrusive that some semblance of a story remains. Topping it off, the stories themselves are typically so small the hope is the effects will wow you into acceptance.
For some audiences this works, for others they’re left to feel as if they’re simply watching pixels move around the screen while a series of noises bombard their ears. In such cases all a filmmaker can seemingly hope for is to straddle the middle ground and hope there’s just enough story to hold the film together, just enough “wow factor” to sate visual obsessives and the actors can hold it all together. Bryan Singer‘s Jack the Giant Slayer walks the middle ground well, resulting in an acceptable film, though easily forgettable.
Most are familiar with the English folk story “Jack and the Beanstalk”, a story of a farmboy, his mother and their cow. The boy acquires magical beans, climbs the resulting beanstalk, steals some riches and survives the giants above by chopping down the vegetation to the sky, thus killing the giant. However, Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer is something of an amalgamation of the “Beanstalk” story and the Cornish fairy tale, “Jack the Giant Killer”, though the latter merely seems to support the film’s darker tone as the “Beanstalk” story remains the backbone of an all new tale.
Nicholas Hoult serves as the titular Jack, gone to the market to sell his cart so he and his uncle may survive a little longer. The story quickly finds new ground as Jack rescues the adventurous princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), out on one of her frequent trips outside the castle walls as a commoner and being harassed by some of the locals. Of course, this won’t be their last meeting as she’s whisked away by the king’s guard.
The soon-to-be love between Jack and Isabelle will have its share of stumbling blocks, first and foremost being the king’s advisor, Roderick, played by Stanley Tucci with cartoonish glee. Roderick’s aim, however, isn’t so much as the crown as it is lording over all the land as he plans to take to the sky and rule the giants that dwell there with a magical crown. The story of said crown is first introduced via a second rate animated sequence that opens the film, combined with scenes of Jack’s father reading him the story of the giants and Isabelle’s mother doing the same, linking their thirst for adventure from the outset as well as getting story particulars out of the way.
Inevitably, Jack finds himself in possession of the familiar magic beans, one accidentally sprouts a stalk to the sky and at the same time takes Isabelle with it, who is then captured by the giants and must be saved, while the king (Ian McShane) and kingdom are left to question the stories they’ve heard their entire lives. So the story goes…
Jack the Giant Slayer is a film that essentially writes itself, but it’s just fun enough to be entertaining and the casting is the largest reason it works at all. Hoult has charisma and stands convincingly tall as Jack and Tomlinson doesn’t spend the duration of the film pouting her lips and trying to look sexy as the damsel in distress as much as she plays a character embroiled in the adventure.
Ewan McGregor plays the leader of the king’s guard and manages to bring life to a character we’ve seen time and time again, and while Tucci has and is fun as Roderick, it’s his blood-thirsty and even goofier sidekick Wicke, played by a toothy Ewan Bremner, that really stands out. And it probably goes without saying, but Bill Nighy‘s voice is as recognizable as ever as the head giant, Fallon.
I was also impressed with the story’s telling. Tucci’s Roderick is the villain used to set up the story, but his character doesn’t remain the central focus throughout. Singer and the screenplay (written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney) don’t get bogged down in time and place or cutesy homages to the original story. The focus is the story and making sure the stakes change in each turn in the story and the only nod to the classic folk tale I noticed was the magical harp in a room full of riches. Of course, such a small thing is a nugget for a sequel as are the film’s final minutes, but those final minutes I actually liked as I felt they fit well with the tonal nature of the film overall.
I will add that I was at times impressed with the effects as the detail on the giants in close-up was particularly impressive, but, as I mentioned, the opening animation was incredibly weak, especially compared to similar story setups such as the stellar work found in front of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Additionally, there were weaker moments when it came to the giants in motion, which I guess I just wouldn’t expect from a film whose release was delayed an entire year.
All this to say, yes, Jack the Giant Slayer is acceptably entertaining though not in the least a must see. It is frustrating, however, to see directors such as Bryan Singer, whom I still associate with the great The Usual Suspects, having to resort to being a director for hire. Singer stepped in for D. J. Caruso who was originally set to direct after several projects for Singer fell through. Now Singer will follow this up with a return to the X-Men franchise and X-Men: Days of Future Past. As much as I appreciate Singer’s work on films such as these, I just wish he could return to where he started and where I think he has a chance to excel far more than he does in these fantasy worlds.