– Summary –
Director : Bryan Singer
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Ewen Bremner, Ralph Brown, Eddie Marsan, Bill Nighy, John Massir.
Approx Running Time : 114 Minutes
Synopsis: After accidentally growing a giant beanstalk up through his house, young Jack quickly learns that the legend of giants in a kingdom above the clouds isn’t just a fairy story. On a quest to rescue the Princess, he and the Kings men soon learn that the giants really do like the blood of Englishmen.
What we think : The problem this film has is not with anything it does or doesn’t do, badly or otherwise; rather, Jack The Giant Slayer suffers by being almost entirely middle-of-the-road. Singer’s deft hand at large-scale visuals is terrific, but the story’s bland characters and emotionless plot developments undo what is in every other aspect a highly produced affair. Visually, the film leaves little to scoff at, save for your belief in giants getting about in the sky, but from a story perspective, it’s all just a bit ho hum.
Fee Fi Fo Fail.
In the words of the immortal Maxwell Smart: “missed it by that much.” Jack The Giant Slayer has pedigree behind it, money behind it, terrific casting and a director capable of some solid cinematic storytelling. Which makes the end result something of a surprise (actually, not really) when all’s said and done. The film was intended as some kind of adventure blockbuster, fitting into the fantasy sub-genre now also containing Snow White & The Huntsman, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Mirror Mirror. Films based on fairy stories have largely been mined out by Hollywood now, and after watching Jack The Giant Slayer, I’m kinda hoping to be spared the dreaded film version of Three Little Pigs. Anyways…. It comes as no surprise to learn that this Slayer is hardly a bloody as the title might suggest, thanks to a PG rating and some “mild” violence – I say mild, because this is the least explicit adventure film I’ve seen since the 1980’s. That’s not to say Slayer isn’t entertaining, because in many ways it’s quite the journey, but that recommendation comes with a multitude of caveats that are hard to overlook when sitting down to write a critical evaluation of the movie. So what are the problems with the film, you ask? Easy enough to explain: read on, dear friend.
Jack (Nicholas Hault) lives with his Uncle on a farm not too far from the walled city castle of Cloister. One day, Jack is sent to the city to sell the family horse and cart, in order to provide much needed funds for other things. After being caught up in a botched robbery of some magical beans, Jack finds himself horse-and-cart-less, and back home with only a bag of beads to show for it. Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), fleeing indentured marriage to the odious (and obviously disinterested) Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci) finds her way to Jack’s house, where she reintroduces herself to a startled Jack as he find himself attracted to her. When one of the magic beans is drenched in storm water, an enormous beanstalk explodes from beneath the house, transporting both Jack and Princess Isabelle far into the sky – Jack eventually plummets Earthward, while Isabelle remains trapped inside the ruins of Jacks farmhouse. The King (Ian McShane) commands several of his troops to scale the enormous beanstalk and rescue the Princess. The soldiers, led by Edmont (Ewan McGregor), begin the arduous climb into the heavens searching for the lost royal. Roderick, together with his attendant Wicke (Ewen Bremner) also climb the stalk, if only so that Roderick can use a secretly obtained magic crown to control the legendary Giants who reside above the clouds. Arriving at the long-thought-lost land of the Giants, the rescuers quickly encounter the enormous beings, who, led by the nasty two-headed Fallon (Bill Nighy), seek revenge on “the mankind” for their imprisonment above the clouds. After freeing the Princess, by managing to actually kill one of the Giants, Jack and Isabelle scarper back down the stalk, while Edmont and Roderick fight for control of the magical crown (which, through magic, controls the Giants) before the stalk is cut down by the King’s troops back on the ground. However, the Giants, thanks to a fortuitous accident, manage to find a way down to Cloister themselves, and the freedom of the kingdom itself it put under threat.
Jack The Giant Slayer feels like a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. On the one hand, you have an effects-driven spectacle that would typically draw in large crowds of people, eager to see the CG wizards’ work up on the big screen. On the other hand, you have a fairly benign fairy story fleshed out to feature length, which causes problems if the characters and narrative aren’t strong enough to maintain interest. Jack The Giant Slayer doesn’t have a strong enough narrative, nor does it have characters who are even remotely interesting, to support its entertainment weight, rendering the final result a uniquely inert experience. It’s not for lack of trying, because I can see where Singer was heading with this thing. He was trying for a zippy, carefree adventure, the kinda kiddie friendly flick that will keep the younger teens entertained and not being too harmful for their delicate sensibilities, the poor dears. In trying for this 80’s-throwback adventure film, he forgot to include characters which are either interesting or compelling in other ways. Is this an adventure film, or high fantasy? The film skirts between the two, not quite defining itself as either, and erroneously striving for both.
Jack, essayed by a terrific Nicholas Hoult (who currently plays Beast in the X-Men series of films) is a blank slate, something to whom things happen, instead of someone who instigates things to happen. Hoult does his best, but his character is largely generic, a square-jawed hero because the script calls for him to be, rather than because of anything he does. His romantic interest, Princess Isabelle, played with the catwalk-model-trying-to-act fruitlessness of Eleanor Tomlinson’s waifish performance, is equally as bland – she’s a Generic Princess of romanticized fairy tale, although Singer does try to beef her up a bit by giving her a shiny golden suit of armor at one point. Third wheel to this duo is Ewan McGregor’s Elmont, dedicated Captain of the Kings Guard, and valiant solder to whom the King entrusts the safe return of the Princess from the Giant World above. McGregor lacks the stature to play a convincing military type, such as the script calls for, and with the largely horrendous accent McGregor employs, almost makes the character a comic-relief centerpoint. Troubling, I don’t think it was intentional. That, and the fact that he can’t even competently defend himself against the less-trained Stanley Tucci’s foppish villain. If this man can’t even win a sword fight, how’d the King ever think he’d be okay taking on some Giants?
Backup performances by Stanley Tucci, as the vastly underwritten and terribly cliched arch-villain, and Ian McShane, as the King of Cloister, who spends a great deal of time wandering about in the films’ second suit of gold armor, add weight to the shenanigans, but there’s not a thing memorable about either of them. Tucci’s role is to provide a bridge between the villainy of humanity, and the cruelty of the Giants, who are easily the more animated characters in the film (literally and figuratively!). As a performer, Tucci’s among my favorite faces in film (the guy’s work is always classy, if too often underrated) but he’s let down by a script that doesn’t seem to know what do to with him. He’s the typical cliche of Older Man Marrying The Princess, before turning into Traitor To Humanity by being the one who provides the momentum/facility for the Giants to make their way to Cloister. His character just feels rote, and although Tucci plays to his strengths with the role, he’s burdened by a lack of genuine support by his fellow cast. Ewan Bremner has a great time as the sniveling sycophant to Roderick, although much like Tucci, he’s let down by inept characterization and a complete lack of development apart from snide remarks and a general unlikable nature. Ian McShane’s King is just how you’d imagine a fairy tale King to be if they were real, and McShane seems to be about the only one in the whole film who gets the joke. Ralph Brown is nigh unrecognizable as one of the King’s commanders, and Eddie Marsan has a short-lived role as one of Elmont’s fellow soldiers.
Easily the centerpiece for the film are the titular Giants. It’s here that I found the film really entertaining. They’re almost entirely CG creations (correct me if I’m wrong, please) but they never feel out of place in the film. Sure, they’re gross, disgusting pustules of oozy phlegmatic yuk, aimed directly at the “eww” bones of the youngsters watching, but Singer manages to make them both highly entertaining and thoroughly, believably menacing when the plot demands it. Leading the pack is central Bad Guy Fallon, the leader of the Giants, a double headed version voiced by Bill Nighy (as the one we can understand) and John Kassir (as the one who sounds exactly like the Tassie Devil from the Warner Bros cartoons). Fallon is probably the most empathetic and believable character in the entire film, which is saying something since he’s pure digital creation over the top of Bill Nighy’s exquisitely delicious vocals. Nighy’s distinctive tones drift between being that of an impish leprechaun, and his Davy Jones character from the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, and as a character really does work on-screen – he’s the leader (but probably doesn’t want to be) and he’s vengeful (as you’d expect) and no doubt wishing plastic surgery could rid him of his second, deformed head, but his motivations are well defined and, moreso than anyone else in the film, makes the audience feel something for his plight. He might be the Bad Guy, but we’re drawn to him because of his character arc. The rest of the Giants tend to blend into each other, which probably isn’t a bad thing in a film of this scale, because keeping track of the human characters is sometimes hard enough.
Visually, the film is grand in almost every respect. The locations, the set design, the costuming, the visual effects; everything is absolutely top notch, and although one can find fault with the guts of the story, the production design and execution is faultless. Singer’s use of camerawork ranges from stately (in and around the King) to stable (anything involving action, with or without the Giants) and it’s a blessing that he keeps the framing of the story steady and free of excessive artifice. Singer is nothing if not a solid storyteller, and I appreciated the lack of shaky-cam, rapid-shutter effects in a film like this to try and accentuate the action. When the action heats up, Singer puts us in the middle of it all, without making things confusing – which seems to be counter-intuitive to modern film-making at the minute – and it’s glorious to watch. Regular Singer collaborator, composer/editor John Ottman, again pulls double duty on this film, providing an appropriately grand and ornamental score for the visuals, while keeping the story fluttering along at a fairly rapid clip. Co-editor Bob Ducsay is a long time favorite chopper of mine (his work in The Mummy Returns remains one of my personal top 5 editing moments in cinema) and while one can’t tell between Ducsay’s work and Ottman’s, you get the sense that Ducsay might have had a more calming influence on the editing process overall.
Jack The Giant Slayer isn’t a bad film, but it’s not that memorable either. It’s entertaining in the moment, but after the credits roll, it all becomes rather forgettable cinematic fare. As mentioned, this can be laid fairly at the feet of the story, which – while being quite clever re-purposing the Jack & The Beanstalk story from childhood, including a nice little touch of historical revisionism at the very end – just feels too generic and emotionless to be truly captivating. The film wants to draw you in, it wants to entertain you by exposing you to gargantuan action sequences and some terrific visual effects, but the lack of characterization and a diffident human antagonist, alongside a brisk-yet-shallow plot, prevents this Slayer from really killing it. It’s a shame, because it all could have been so much better.
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