I can only imagine the early production meetings… “guys, we need a storyline that’ll let us show off some really cool new visual effects, something that everyone will know but that we can bring into the modern era.” “Okay, but it better not cost a mil to get the book rights this time.” “Okay, okay. Hey! How about Jack and the Beanstalk?” “Wait, are we talking a cartoon?” “No, live action. Big, epic, scary, in your face, even some splatter!” “Fine. Show me a script. I’ll call Singer, I think he owes us one…”
The film Jack the Giant Slayer is actually a fun, modern and, yes, visual effects-heavy take on the Jack and the Beanstalk fable. You know the story, the simple boy Jack who trades his family’s horse and cart for some magic beans that grow into a beanstalk that reaches far into the sky. He climbs up, rescues the princess, slays the giant, slides down, chops the beanstalk down before the rest of the giants invade. Cue happy ending.
The problem with this visually sumptuous remake isn’t the storyline with its updates to the original fable, and it’s not the performances, which are uniformly competent and occasionally quite entertaining, it’s that director Bryan Singer couldn’t decide if they were making an aggressive, violent adult movie in the vein of Game of Thrones and The Hobbit, or whether they were making a family friendly movie that would have earned the MPAA “moments of mild action and suspense” label. Instead, he made both, and it’s a bit of a mess as a result.
Case in point: the family in front of us in the theater didn’t pay attention to the fact that Jack the Giant Slayer is actually rated PG-13 (for intense action violence and frightening images) and as a result the two little girls (around 8 or 10) ended up on their parents laps through much of the film. Yeah, it’s that kind of family film. Not really very pre-adolescent friendly at all.
The mess surrounding how intense to make the movie is really too bad, because I found it a quite enjoyable fantasy film with striking images that were inspired by all sorts of other films, including Skull Island from Peter Jackson’s King Kong and a medieval world that definitely had me looking for surprise cameos from Dwarves and even a young Bilbo Baggins.
Still, when the writing credits involve four people, Darren Lemke and David Dobkin for the story, Darren, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney for the screenplay, you know that somewhere along the way the simple idea of converting Jack and the Beanstalk into a big vfx epic bogged down, and perhaps that’s where the confusion over G vs PG-13 came in. Still, McQuarrie at least has a terrific list of films he’s been involved with, including the superb The Usual Suspects, The Tourist and the surprisingly tense Valkyrie, as well as the upcoming films Top Gun 2 and Mission: Impossible 5.
And speaking of the crew, production designer Gavin Bocquet has done some other films you’ve definitely seen, including the sweet fantasy Stardust and Star Wars I, II and III. Unsurprisingly as there’s much visual overlap, he was also production designer on the lackluster but visually innovative Jack Black hit Gulliver’s Travels. I imagine he spends a lot of time at the Renaissance Faire too…
Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) from “Jack the Giant Slayer”
Getting the look and feel of the medieval world that Jack the Giant Slayer takes place in is important, and as with so many elements of the film, there’s lots to like about the castle, the exteriors, the giants messy large-scale hovel and even the towering, vaguely malevolent beanstalk. The stars of the film are the actors, however, and I found young Nicholas Hoult as Jack quite appealing. He has a fresh naivety to him that’s reminiscent of Westley (Cary Elwes) in the immensely popular The Princess Bride.
The princess who is ultimately in distress, though she is certainly headstrong enough to be a very modern female lead, is Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), and she acts in a typically bratty manner. She’s been promised to the evil Roderick (Stanley Tucci, entertaining as always) by her father, the King (Ian McShane) who who has no idea his #2 has nefarious plans for the kingdom. Don’t all aides to a King have nefarious plans in these kind of stories?
The most entertaining of the cast was King’s Knight Sir Elmont (Ewan McGregor), who gallantly embodies honor and idealism while defending Princess Isabelle from every evil, whether it be in human form or giant. Well, when he wasn’t being prepared as a giant pig-in-a-blanket for the giants, trapped and pushed into the oven until Jack frees him at the last minute.
Other than the surprising violence in the film — including a particularly gross scene near the end when evil giant General Fallon (voiced by Bill Nighy) is killed by having a magic beanstalk grow out of his own innards – the other weak link was the visual effects of the giants themselves. Their limbs, the scale of things, the ferocious intensity of their attack on the castle were all good, but their faces looked more like bad video game animation than a multi-million dollar special effects house having labored for a year or more. A surprisingly lapse in a film that otherwise has such a lovely production feel to it.
Truth be told, I’ve seen far worse fantasy films in the theater. Jack the Giant Slayer is definitely entertaining and worth seeing on the big screen. Just don’t bring your younger children and don’t expect it to be another film with the constantly astonishing visuals of The Hobbit or 2012 Academy Award Winning Life of Pi (for visual effects).