After the Tim Burtonized Alice in Wonderland, one serious and another silly take on Snow White, as well as the hectic Hansel & Gretel, now we’ve come to a cinematic retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk.. But injected with dose of modern movie magic, the fairy tale Jack the Giant Slayer has grown into an action adventure that sacrifices story for spectacle.
While most of these recent revamps have followed the Dark Knight model of grim and gritty makeover, Jack offers excessive exuberance. Somewhere under an adventure jammed full of CGI — running rampant like the proverbial beanstalk — there’s actually a throwback fairy tale. One senses that director Bryan Singer and his gaggle of writers were aiming for something sweeter. Centred on farm boy Jack and privileged princess Isabelle, there’s a faint whiff of The Princess Bride. Sure, the focus is on giants, but the film’s heart revolves around brave boys, dark deeds and a young couple longing for adventure.
Actors Ewan McGregor (left), Eleanor Tomlinson and Nicholas Hoult appear in a scene from Jack the Giant Slayer. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
We start in the Dark Ages, with a variation on Country Mouse, City Mouse. Jack is a simple little boy who begs his father to recount the tale of the Giants of Gargantua, who live in the clouds. Listening to the story, just as avidly but in the royal palace, is a princess named Isabelle. She learns how the giants once invaded the Kingdom of Cloister, only to be driven back by King Erik and his magic crown.
Flash forward ten years and Jack is a penniless orphan, while Isabelle is set to wed the scheming Roderick, played with a gap-toothed sneer by Stanley Tucci. I’ll save you the exposition, but suffice to say a bag of magic beans and some rain result in Jack joining a royal expedition to rescue the princess from the land of the giants. Tally-ho!
If Jack jogs your memory, that’s because you may have just seen Nicholas Hoult as the undead Romeo in Warm Bodies. Hoult’s natural charm livens up the earnest role. But he, along with Eleanor Tomlinson, who plays Isabelle, simply doesn’t have much to work with. He’s a poor boy who tries hard. She want to be independent, but tends to get rescued a lot. As often the case with these fairy-tale revisions, it’s the bad guys who get the good stuff. From the second Stanley Tucci appears in his Jheri-curl wig, we know Roderick’s up to no good. He’s aided by the gloriously deranged accomplice Wicke, portrayed by Ewen Bremner.
On the side of good, Ian McShane fills out royal robes nicely as King Brahmwell, while Ewan McGregor turns up as Elmont, head of the king’s guard. McGregor brings a bit of Douglas Fairbanks dash to the role, but trade his sword for a lightsaber and you’ll see it’s not a long walk from Elmont to Obi-Wan.
Singer (who gave us the X-Men movies, Superman Returns and more) has talked about making a 21st century version of Ray Harryhausen’s films. Harryhausen is the stop-motion innovator who created giant dinosaurs and massive monsters out of miniature models (If you saw 1981’s Clash of the Titans, you’ve seen his work).
Today, no director of Singer’s calibre would consider that old-school technology, of course. Instead we have computer-generated monstrosities created from footage of the wonderful Bill Nighy wired up in a motion-capture suit. Nighy voices the two-headed, 50-foot-tall giant General Fallon. While the 3D is passable and Singer does a good job of giving us a sense of scale, the action is of the forgettable variety. Giants roar and throw trees. Knights and archers scatter like toy soldiers. At the screening I attended, the difference between the flesh-and-blood actors and the CGI simulations was painfully obvious.
It’s interesting that Singer has invoked Harryhausen, because at its best, Jack the Giant Slayer reminds me of another magical movie innovator: Jim Henson. With its witty script and noble characters, Jack has a retro quality that invokes Labyrinth or The Neverending Story. Though the special effects in those earlier films weren’t perfect, they had a handmade touch that helped bridge the believability gap.
This brings us to what seems like a war for Singer’s soul. In interviews, he appears enamoured with old-fashioned films. When asked about his favourite sequence in Jack the Giant Slayer, he mentions a pantomime near the beginning, performed by Warwick Davis.
While Jack the Giant Slayer is far too chaotic to become a new classic, it’s a fun bit of fluff for the family. Singer burst onto the cinematic scene with The Usual Suspects, a film where the only special effect was its killer screenplay. Perhaps after he finishes with his next supersized X-Men iteration, he can step away from the green screen and rediscover what caught our attention in the first place.