Though it is uneven and it drags in the early going, Jack the Giant Slayer, director Bryan Singer’s new cinematic take on the “Jack and the Beanstalk” fairy tale, is a charming, fun fantasy adventure that if anything at all should restore some of your faith in Hollywood’s ability to make a good movie out of a classic fairy tale story.
The basic elements of the story — the clever hero Jack, the magic beans, a giant, Fee, Fye, Foe, and Fumm — they’re all here, but the script by Darren Lamke (Shrek Forever After) and Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, Valkryie) makes them parts of a much grander legend. In this story, giants once waged war on humanity long ago, but were banished to their realm far above the clouds by a heroic king and a magical relic, the titanic beanstalks that connected that realm to ours chopped down and destroyed.
That victory was the stuff of childhood bedtime stories for good-hearted farmhand Jack (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), who one day after a misadventure involving a princess (Eleanor Tomlinson, Alice in Wonderland) and the king’s elite guard, led by the dashing Lord Elmont (Ewan McGregor), finds himself given possession of a bag of beans he’s told are valuable and must never, ever get wet. Of course, one of them does, and suddenly Jack and the entire kingdom are faced with the rise (literally) of another enormous beanstalk stretching up into the clouds, one that’s carried away Jack’s house with the princess still inside.
Jack, Elmont, and a group of would-be rescuers climb the beanstalk in search of Isabelle and find a land of vast, untamed forests, raging rivers, towering waterfalls, and of course, belligerent giants led by the powerful two-headed General Fallon (Bill Nighy), who want nothing more than to take their revenge for centuries of exile and eat lots of humans along the way. Add to that a scheming noble (Stanley Tucci) with his own plans for Isabelle and the army of giants and you have an epic to rival The Hobbit and its Lord of the Rings predecessors … or at least, that seems to be the idea.
The problem, as usual, lies in the execution, and for that you always have to look to the director. Bryan Singer has been notoriously inconsistent since he exploded on the scene years ago with The Usual Suspects. For just about every critical and commercial success he’s cranked out — Apt Pupil (1998), X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) — there’s been a cinematic dud that was high on concept but failed to deliver in terms of expectations — Superman Returns (2006) and Valkryie (2008).
In each of those and here also in Jack the Giant Slayer, Singer gets tripped up in the pacing of his storytelling; he lingers too long on story beats he feels are necessary, and the result is that they feel obligatory and clunky. With Jack, it’s all in the setup, where there are palpable moments, whole scenes that feel like Singer is trying really hard to sell you on how charming his story and his leads are. He seems to be aiming for the kind of charm that Rob Reiner and writer William Goldman so effortlessly achieved 25 years ago in The Princess Bride, but he’s wide of the mark because he needs two acts of his film to do what Reiner and Goldman did in a 5 minute montage and Peter Falk voice over: convince you that his hero is worth cheering for and his heroine is worth fighting for. Once all that’s done, THEN he can bring in the giants, and that’s when the movie really starts rolling.
It’s a shame, really, because he didn’t need to try that hard with this cast. This should be a very strong follow-up for Nicholas Hoult’s growing star power, coming off of the commercial success of Warm Bodies just a month ago, and his charisma and chemistry with the lovely Eleanor Tomlinson here will remind you a great deal of the young Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in Bride. Ewan McGregor (and his impossibly well-groomed hair, as fantastical as the giants themselves in a film like this) is similarly fun to watch. He seems to be enjoying the fact that he’s just a supporting player here, as though his days of doing the heavy lifting playing Jack’s kind of wide-eyed hero are long past him. Ian McShane (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), often cast as the villain in anything featuring characters carrying swords, gets to enjoy playing the good king and protective father for once, while Stanley Tucci makes the most of his latest opportunity to chew scenery and twirl the bad guy mustache.
What Singer does do right here is avoid the over-abundance of irony and the inclination toward horror and gore that’s been characteristic of fairy tale adaptations of late. From this year’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters to last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman and 2011’s Red Riding Hood, Hollywood’s producers and filmmakers have seemed bent upon going ‘dark’, making these stories the domain of grown-ups and scare-fest loving teens rather than that of children and families. The film isn’t completely kid-friendly — it earns its PG-13 rating with its violence and imagery — but the overall tone of the film is much brighter and its spirit much more romantic and fun than those other, more recent entries into the genre. It’s a savvy move by Singer and a welcome change — as evidenced by the lackluster box office performances of Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood in particular, audiences seem ready to take a break from “dark re-tellings” for a while.
The result of all this is a film that, for all its beautiful production design and lavish green-screen powered visuals that would have been breathtaking had they been shown to us a decade ago before The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t really kick into high gear until its third act, when it finally comes down to watching giants charge and castles fall. By the time it’s all done, you will have had a giant of a good time, even if it took a little too long to get there.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Jack the Giant Slayer
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy, and Ewan McGregor. Directed by Bryan Singer.
Running Time: 114 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language.
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