REVIEW SUMMARY: Well-executed set pieces, clever touches, and tongue-in-cheek manner manage to save Bryan Singer’s mostly by-the-numbers fantasy adventure.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Farm boy Jack accepts a payment of beans for a horse, which sprout into a beanstalk beneath his home up to a world of Giants who are none too happy being relegated to a land away from humans.
PROS: Efficient direction from Singer, who finds a good balance between action and humor; reasonably good casting (especially of Stanley Tucci as Roderick and Ewan McGregor as Elmont); amusing, often clever sight gags; interesting blending of the classic English and Cornish folk tales.
CONS: Largely bland leading man and woman; character motivations at times make no sense; script’s blending of folk tales not smooth and starts too slowly.
It must be a challenge to make a fantasy movie in the wake of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (to say nothing of the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise), especially when it comes to making movies out of other successful series, each more anemic that the last. Challenging and even foolhardy; how many of even the genre’s most devoted fans would bother to sit through, say, Joe Johnston offering a cinematic tour of one of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, or even (wait for it) a Zack Snyder–helmed rendition of Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Sha-na-nara? Even scarier, how many would want to?
Perhaps director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney understood the daunting task of meeting these expectations (even for undiscriminating audiences), which allowed them to produce a movie like Jack the Giant Slayer. Certainly this blending of both “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer” learned a good deal from the Harry Potter series and Jackson (as well as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast); it makes much more of an effort than the recent The Hobbit: The Phantom Menace to entertain, and on that superficial level it exceeds the Tolkien prequel, even if it never climbs to loftier heights.
The combination of folk tales blends, but not seamlessly, and lurches through its opening. Ten years after plague takes his father, Jack’s (Nicholas Hoult, hot off the surprise necrophilia zombie romantic comedy Warm Bodies) family’s farm has fallen on hard times. Sent by his uncle to sell a cart of goods and a workhorse (and admonished not to get distracted), Jack stops by a puppet show telling the story of how giants were banished from earth into another realm. During the show, he defends a woman from a trio of ne’er-do-wells; this woman, it turns out, is Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who seems to make a habit of wandering off from the castle of her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), and needing the assistance of her escort Elmont (Ewan McGreogor, tongue firmly in cheek) to return. Isabelle, of course, dreams of adventures far more fulfilling than marrying suitor Roderick (Stanley Tucci, playing the duplicitous royal subject with scenery-chewing gusto), and it leads her to finally leave the castle late one night. Jack, meanwhile, must go home with his cart stolen and his horse traded for a few beans given to him by a monk. Of course, the princess seeks shelter in his cottage, where they shyly banter. Of course, a stray bean receives a good soaking from the rain (one of them falls beneath the floor when his uncle tosses them at Jack in anger), and sprouts a beanstalk that splinters Jack’s home and takes Isabelle beyond the clouds, where she is (naturally) captured by giants. Under orders from King Brahmwell, Elmont climbs the beanstalk with a group of armed guards. Jack, who has fallen in love with the princess, volunteers his assistance.
Much of the action in Jack the Giant Slayer is standard fare, and often reminds one far too much of other, better movies. With its glib manner and breezy nature, it wants to be a modern The Princess Bride crossed with one of Ray Harryhausen’s great stop-motion epics, but lacks the intelligence and charm of the former and the groundbreaking effects of the latter. (The effects themselves, while not bad, offer nothing revolutionary.) Additionally, the screenplay pays far more attention to the human machinations, from Roderick’s thirst for power to Elmont’s almost painfully earnest desire to be the tale’s hero, than to the equally interesting backbiting and infighting among the giants, specifically the two-headed General Fallon (Bill Nighy, all but buried under CGI rendering). As with most fantasy, humans command far more interest, even when given a leading man and lady as flat as Hoult and Tomlinson. Neither generate the energy or chemistry of the supporting cast members. The minor characters themselves seldom behave consistently; as Elmont and Jack search for the princess, Roderick strikes a deal with the giants to lead them back to earth. The power grab seems forced. Indeed, most of the machinations drag the movie’s running time on for far too long.
But Singer adds enough interesting cues and visual jokes to maintain interest. As King Brahmwell stands for an artist’s portrait in regal finery, he steps from the framework to counsel Isabelle, revealing his own diminutive stature. When the giants capture Elmont, a cook wraps him in dough and places him next in line of whole pigs, also wrapped in dough. (Yes, the joke is obvious, but still amusing.) Such moments do not completely save Jack the Giant Slayer, but they do divert from the obvious flaws.