Coming on the heels of the wave of ‘adult’ (read: adolescent) updates of classic fairy tales such as Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer – a big-budget, CGI-infused take on Jack and the Beanstalk – is one of the more unlikely entries, but also the best of a weak bunch.
The original story is actually prime material for exploration, with a lead character who makes an ill-advised purchase of “magic beans”, obtains ill-gotten wealth by stealing from the home of a giant, and then kills the poor fellow en route to the happily-ever-after ending. Of course, this is not that movie; for a more interesting take on the material, check out Brian Henson’s TV miniseries Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story.
Instead, Jack the Giant Slayer gives us farmhand Jack (played by Nicholas Hoult) as the traditional “chosen one” archetype. He travels into the kingdom to sell his uncle’s horse for necessary roof repairs, and lo, what’s this? A monk who needs a horse and can only spare a handful of magic beans?
It’s important, I think, that Jack is fooled into making this swap; that he does something stupid for which he can later atone. But I can imagine the screenwriters thinking, “Wait, magic beans? Our hero – he isn’t an idiot.” And so we get a nice thematic muddle: Jack kinda dozes off for a moment while the monk places the beans in his hand and rides off on the horse. Not only that, but the monk is captured and the horse eventually rides back to him.
My hopes weren’t high early on, especially given the portrayal of Jack and the female lead, Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who wants to run away from home and find an adventure. These characters are bland and lifeless, and we know exactly where the story is going to take them from their first moments on screen.
But some life is breathed into the film with the addition of the beanstalk, which is (unexpectedly) depicted with all the horror that a giant, rapidly-growing beanstalk might actually have, violently rising towards the heavens and carrying the princess off with it.
As Jack and King’s Guard members Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and Crawe (Eddie Marsan), along with mustache-twirling Roderick (Stanley Tucci) and sidekick Wicke (Ewen Bremner) start to scale the massive beanstalk, the film turns into a genuinely tense mountain-climbing expedition. It’s a frightening sequence, strikingly executed, with a dreamlike, interpretive quality: what will they find at the top?
The land of the giants plays out like Skull Island: a mythical land inhabited by terrifying…cartoons. Yes, the giants – who could have been realized perfectly through practical f/x work and camera tricks, are fully CGI creations – farting, burping, nose-picking cartoons who convey little of the towering menace they ought to.
At this point, the film stops being Jack and the Beanstalk, and it doesn’t exactly become Jack the Giant Killer – which its title explicitly references – either. Instead, it’s more-of-the-same in the fantasy Lord of the Rings vein, but it’s a surprisingly fun ride, nicely scripted (by Christopher McQuarrie, Darren Lemke, and Dan Studney) and efficiently directed (by Bryan Singer).
It’s a pleasure to see writing that features satisfying elements of setup and payoff and filmmaking in which you can tell what’s happening during the action scenes; my, how standards have lowered. It’s a little disconcerting to see the makers of The Usual Suspects working in this realm, but hey, at least they didn’t mail it in.
Halfway through the film, I began to notice something: while I didn’t care at all for the leads here, I actually became invested in the secondary characters, particularly McGregor’s Elrond. I think that’s because while I knew where the main storyline was headed, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen with the others, resulting in some suspense – and surprises – along the way.
Note: despite the fairy tale origins (and the prevalence of dubbed copies in Czech cinemas), Jack the Giant Slayer is not for younger children: at times intense and violent, a couple noticeable edits indicate where the film was cut to avoid an ‘R’ rating in the states.