It's really not so bad this week. Oh, sure we have the mediocre Jack the Giant Slayer, but then there's 21 and Over, which is surprisingly pretty damn good. And yeah, The Last Exorcism Part II is absolutely terrible, but Stoker's pretty good, you know? Then there's Snitch. Eh, it's okay.
EXPECTATIONS: It's about time we gave a name to this spate of ridiculously overblown fairy-tale adaptations. Hypertales? Power Fantasy? Grimmsploitation? This latest monstrosity comes courtesy of Bryan Singer, deadbeat dad of the X-Men franchise. I'm going to try staying positive here, because I love a good adventure yarn, but something about the trailers suggests this won't be one.
REALITY: It's always a shame when a film simply goes through the motions. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars on actors, sets and costumes, and a couple dollars on special effects, and all they have to show for it is two hours of things happening. That's really the biggest problem with Jack the Giant Slayer. It's basically a well-photographed, competently made film, but at no point does it attempt to set itself apart from the litany of fantasy epics that have come before it.
This guy must get mugged a lot.
A long time ago in a nondescript part of Britain, a farmboy named Jack (Nicholas Hoult) travels to the city to sell his uncle's horse. He instead exchanges the horse for some beans from a monk who's frantic to get rid of them. After a chance meeting with Princess Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson), Jack sees the beans grow into a colossal beanstalk that sends the princess to a land above the clouds that is ruled by giants. The king (Ian McShane) orders Jack to accompany his advisor Roderick (Stanley Tucci) and chief knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) up the beanstalk to rescue her. The princess is rescued in fairly short order, but Jack quickly learns that Roderick has some evil plans of his own.
The film shows signs of trouble almost immediately, as we learn about the true history of giants in a flashback that looks like it was rendered for a Playstation game back in 1998. As young Jack's father tells him the story, we see a war between humans and giants that ends in the king forging a crown to control the giants, and then banishing them to the sky forever by chopping down their beanstalk. As appallingly designed as it is, this glorified cut scene contains information that's obviously crucial for later. The only way to make this more transparent would be to have Anton Chekov narrate the opening saying "There's a gun. And there's another. Ooh, here's one more..."
Ah now, this part I remember.It's established early on that Jack the Giant Slayer is dealing with the way history is relayed to us as myth, a notion that really only comes into play in the film's brief bookend segments. Jack has heard the story about giants and beanstalks, and while his father tells him it's all true, his knowledge of what is essentially a fairy tale never really comes into play. Not once does Jack use what he knows about history and myth to gain the upper hand; it's all pluck and happenstance.
Incidentally, Nicholas Hoult (recently seen lumbering around in Warm Bodies) gives Jack just enough pluck to make us root for him without making the character seem overbearing. He's relatively untested as a leading man, which serves Jack's character well: If Hoult fails, Jack fails. He is the lone bright spot in an otherwise joyless film. Stanley Tucci does a decent job of hamming it up as Roderick, as does Ewan Bremner as his giggly sidekick, but McShane and McGregor both act as though they'd rather be out drinking instead of tilting at CGI windmills.
The film features a number of stylistic callbacks to fantasy films from generations ago (such as Jack the Giant Killer, naturally), but in a production this huge, those design choices nearly go unnoticed among all the sweeping vistas and CGI malarkey. Who's to notice that the king's knights look like they were pulled straight out of 1962 when there are so many burning trees and garishly designed giants all over the place? You know your medieval fantasy has done something wrong when Ewan McGregor's oddly modern haircut is your most unique design choice.
Jack isn't as stylistically oppressive as last year's Snow White and the Huntsman, as there are a handful of whimsical touches that offer this film a little color, but the lion's share of it is aggressively bland. Take the giants, for example. Would it have killed them to design giants that weren't simply large, dirty people? The lead giant, Fallon (voiced by Bill Nighy doing his best Davy Jones), has two heads; that's a start, but it doesn't excuse the fact that the other giants all pretty much look like the same gnarly hitchhiker in a different outfit.
I'm surprised they didn't try to sell this film with the tagline "You don't know Jack!"Bryan Singer's direction does nothing to fight the blandness, either. As an auteur, Singer could be best described as "steady." The landscape he creates is fairly interesting, but at times it seems like he can't be bothered to find the most exciting way to film his action movie. I found myself struggling to pay attention around the one-hour mark, largely due to the general same-ness of all the film's setpieces. I can only imagine how this film's target audience might react.
Which leads me to one last question: Is this film meant for children? It's adapted from a fairy tale, so conventional wisdom says yes. It's scripted in a way that ought to easily appeal to children, with loads of bean puns and an emphasis on reminding us that all of this is real. But then the violent moments seem to be taking place in a completely different movie. Jack stabs a giant in the back with an enormous knife; giants explode in an orgy of limbs; we see giants' faces get riddled with arrows. I like seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance as much as the next guy, but Jack seems to go out of its way to earn its PG-13 rating for an audience that isn't quite there yet.
|Nicholas Hoult's Hero Face||8/10|
|Ewan McGregor's Embarrassed Face||3/10|
MINORITY REPORT: I worry that the setting in Jack the Giant Slayer is basically what Americans think Britain is like. Don't be fooled, guys. It's grey and boring over here. There are no giants, trolls, witches or pixies wandering the countryside. The werewolves ate them all. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison
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