2013 // USA // Bryan Singer // February 23, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Des Peres Cine 14)
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
Jack the Giant Slayer poses the eternal question of mediocre cinema: Is it preferable for a film to be uniformly bland yet serviceable, or to be teeth-gratingly bad with the occasional bright spot? Big-budget genre films in the post-Lord of the Rings era—or the post-X2 era, depending on one’s tastes—seem to be ground zero for this conundrum. Filmmakers appear to have drawn all the wrong lessons from Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy, littering their sorcerous and superheroic features with extravagant design and frenetic battle sequences, as though these components were a substitute for characterization or plot. The results have either been middling or outright terrible.
In the latter category of awful but fleetingly impressive films is last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman. Between its nonsensical story, desultory tone, and stale Grimm conventions, Rupert Sander’s debut feature is a straight-up mess. Granted, it does have Charlize Theron vamping about in some dazzling costumes, and a handful of striking bits: Snow’s acid-trip flight into the Dark Forest; an army of menacing obsidian automata; a butterfly swarm assuming the form of a stately stag. None of these elements even remotely redeem the film’s offenses, but they at least provide some ephemeral pleasures in a feature that is otherwise a wall-to-wall endurance test.
In contrast, Jack the Giant Slayer is at least nominally successful at the bare-bones task of presenting a digital effects-packed update to a classic fairy tale. Director Bryan Singer’s PG-13 retelling of the English story “Jack and the Beanstalk”—mashed up with the Cornish legend “Jack the Giant Killer”—is an inoffensive work, mildly entertaining yet thoroughly conservative from a formal and cultural standpoint. It will probably be forgotten in a year, but the bar has been set so dispiritingly low for live-action fantasy lately, it somehow feels like a success that Jack is not a complete train wreck. That's damning with faint praise, perhaps, but such is the state of cinema in 2013.
In an aggressively ugly computer-animated prelude, the film lays out its mythology. In ancient times, an order of monks created a strain of enchanted beans, which in turn spawned a colossal vine that stretched into the clouds. The monks had hoped to use this beanstalk to access Heaven, but instead established a link to the sky-kingdom of Gantua, home to a race of cruel and savage giants. The creatures descended the stalk and marauded across the earthly kingdom of Cloister, terrorizing the populace and devouring their livestock. Eventually, Cloister’s king fashioned a magic crown that enabled him to dominate the giants. Once he had ordered the brutes to return to Gantua, the beanstalk was chopped down in order to sever the giants’ access to Earth. (It bears repeating that this prelude is a singularly hideous sequence, not only by the high standards of animated flashbacks in other recent fantasy films—Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Kung Fu Panda 2, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1—but by the standards of 1996 video game cinematics.)
The rest of the film is essentially just a live-action retread of this tale, only louder, longer, and less unsightly. The same events occur with minor variations: the beans are rediscovered, Gantua and Earth are rejoined, the giants rampage through Cloister, and the power of the enchanted crown eventually wins the day. Nearly every jot of the story is a fantasy cliche, but the film is neither exuberant nor arch enough to qualify as a spiritual successor to the gee-whiz fantasy films of the mid-twentieth century, such as The Thief of Baghdad and Jason and the Argonauts. It just goes through the motions, occasionally with verve and wit, but more typically with the uninspired dutifulness of a production that has $195 million to burn through on extras, sets, costumes, and visual effects.
The noble-hearted hero of this tale is Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a peasant heartthrob who devoured legends of the Gantuan giants as a child and still longs for adventure. The film’s obligatory plucky princess is Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who yearns to wriggle from King Brahmwell’s (Ian McShane) doting but strict expectations, which include marrying her off to the kingdom's scenery-chewing, transparently treacherous steward, Roderick (Stanley Tucci). During a market day at Cloister castle, Jack crosses paths with Isabelle, and it’s love at first sight—or so the film asserts, although there's little evidence of it onscreen. To Jack's consternation, the king' Guardians, led by the dauntless Elmont (Ewan McGregor), appear suddenly to whisk Isabelle away. Shortly thereafter, an anxious monk presses a pouch of beans into Jack’s hand with an admonishment: never, ever get them wet.
In one of those oh-so-convenient fairy tale plot turns, Isabelle flees the castle that night and takes shelter from a thunderstorm at Jack’s mud farm. The peasant boy and princess engage in some gooey, nervous flirting until a raindrop moistens a mislaid bean and an enormous vine begins—*ahem*—growing uncontrollably. (To the film’s unexpected credit, the ribald subtext to this scene is played completely straight and never commented upon, making it far more effective and subtly amusing that it has any right to be.) Isabelle is carried up and away to Gantua by the towering beanstalk, while Jack is left behind, neatly setting up a standard-issue princess rescue mission. King Brahmwell orders Elmont and the Guardians to ascend the stalk and retrieve his daughter, and gives permission for both Jack and Roderick to join the quest, to the soldiers’ annoyance.
Things go pear-shaped before the rescuers have even surmounted the stalk, and everyone except Jack is eventually captured by the Gantuan giants. Now that the path to Earth has been regrown, the titans’ cunning two-headed general Fallon (Bill Nighy and John Kassir) intends to lead his people to King’s Brahmwell’s doorstep on a mission of vengeance. These plans are altered somewhat when Roderick shows his true colors and produces the fabled enchanted crown, which he uses to seize control of the giants and launch his own war on Cloister. Meanwhile, the king despairs that the giants will strike before Isabelle is rescued, and so he reluctantly commands that the stalk be hacked down. (This is a monumentally stupid decision given the size of the plant and the foreseeable effect it will have on the countryside when it topples. Still, it’s not half as stupid as waiting until the last second to flee the area, which is exactly what all the unwashed Middle Age looky-loos do.) This proves to be only a short setback for the giants, as Jack has carried the remaining beans to Gantua, and the enchanted stalks are apparently capable of growing down as well as up...
There’s quite a bit more to the story than the above summary conveys, but it hardly matters. The narrative is really just a scaffolding for the expected fantasy adventure components: searches, confrontations, chases, escapes, and a climatic, chaotic battle involving siege weaponry and enormous creatures. On this score, Jack the Giant Slayer delivers, although the film is more of an unremarkable diversion than a compelling work of escapism.
Neither Singer nor his usual cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel—who two years ago provided such a visual jolt in Drive—do much that could be regarded as cinematically distinctive. Likewise, the production design by Star Wars prequel veteran Gavin Bocquet is appropriately lavish, but almost anonymous in its storybook predictability. Cloister is all Disney gloss, while Gantua is all Mordor grime, and both are swallowed up by the carelessness of the Once Upon a Time, England-but-not-really-England setting. Depending on the scenery or costume element in question, Jack could take place anytime between the twelfth and the nineteenth centuries. This is not normally a problem in fantasy films, but Jack awkwardly reveals in its final moments that—surprise!—Cloister was really England all along, and the giant-controlling crown was eventually forged into the present-day Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. At which point any self-respecting Anglophile will be tempted to give the film the finger and walk out.
In most other respects, however, the film plays fair with its rules, presenting a fairly snappy plot that hustles from Point A to Point B without tripping over its own feet. The screenplay by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney maintains a sense of overpowering menace around the giants, and finds all sorts of engaging ways for the human characters to stymie the brutes without resorting to one-on-one physical confrontations that the giants would doubtlessly win. (The film's one fudge on this matter occurs when a couple dozen humans somehow manage to hold a drawbridge shut against the might of a comparable number of giants. How exactly does that work?) True to his folkloric roots, Jack defeats his foes by cleverness, not by transforming into a sword-wielding, giant-slaughtering demigod. This approach almost makes up for the film’s musty conventionality. Most predictably and gallingly, Isabelle is not given much to do after she is spirited away to Gantua, at which point the filmmakers seem to forget her previously established itch for independence. It’s a frustratingly retrograde story in many respects, particularly given that it’s been less than a year since Brave’s sneaky audacity.
It doesn’t help matters that Tomlinson fails to make much of an impression, as do most of the other cast members: Hoult is pretty, McShane is stern, McGregor is droll, and all of them are generally forgettable. Nighy’s voice work should be a pleasure, but Fallon so closely resembles his iconic turn as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels that the effect is distracting. Tucci sneers, struts, and waggles his eyebrows in an amused way that doesn’t so much convey malevolence as shout, “Can you believe I’m getting paid for having this much fun?” As Roderick, he alone seems keenly aware that he is a character in a fairy tale, and while Tucci’s performance matches almost nothing else in the film tonally, it’s at least enjoyable to watch. (This also means that Jack becomes far less interesting when Roderick suddenly perishes at about the 70-minute mark.)
Ultimately, what salvages Jack the Giant Slayer from middlebrow dullness by a narrow margin is not its acting, design, or storytelling, but the sheer formulism of its breathless, thunderous thrills. Singer’s no-frills, earnest presentation of boilerplate fantasy action, super-sized for contemporary multiplex viewers, possesses a kind of adolescent simplicity. Like a roller coaster that one has ridden a dozen times, it offers a soothing kind of excitement, but no genuine surprises or risk.