Saturday, March 2, 2013


When it comes to recontextualizing an old tale as a modern would-be blockbuster, Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer is way better than Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, but doesn’t even come close to the entertainment value of Snow White and the Huntsman. I suppose that’s the very definition of middling. I may not have liked it much, but it’s certainly not worth disliking, not when it’s so colorful and good natured, a kind of square, clear-eyed spectacle, a red-blooded adventure that wouldn’t have looked too out of place in the 50s with Harryhausen animation instead of blandly intricate CGI fakery. In this new telling, the story of Jack, the farm boy who trades his horse for magic beans which then grow into a beanstalk that leads to a land of giants, is the basic seed of story which sprouts into a typical hero’s journey complete with damsel so hopelessly distressed and a terribly modern extended action climax that drones on and on through noisy digital destruction.

But before it gets there, it starts simply, with a nicely crosscut sequence of a little boy in a farmhouse and a little girl in a castle, each being read a legend of giants and the king who forged a crown out of a melted giant’s heart to order them back to their realm high in the sky. The boy grows up to be Jack (Nicholas Hoult). The girl grows up to be the princess (Eleanor Tomlinson). She, through a series of events I shan’t relay here, ends up stuck at the top of the beanstalk when it smashes up through Jack’s small house. The king (Ian McShane) orders his best knight (Ewan McGregor) up the stalk with a team of men with the mission to save the princess at all costs. Among the group are the girl’s clearly villainous betrothed (Stanley Tucci, who doesn’t twirl his mustache, but might as well) and Jack, who has taken a liking to the girl and wants to impress her by joining the rescue party. He also feels a little responsible. After all, he’s the one who lost track of the bean that started the whole mess.

At the top of the beanstalk there be giants, of course. The giants’ world is a playground for standard adventure beats, with the men scurrying to and fro through setpieces that play with scale in all the ways you’d expect. There’s a smattering of silly visual moments – I especially liked one involving pigs in a giant’s oven – and a handful of fine action beats. The problem that Singer and his screenwriters Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney don’t quite get around to solving – until the charming, unexpected epilogue, that is – is how to overcome the feeling that we’ve been here before. If not literally here, then we’ve at least been in the neighborhood. The characters never rise to the level of even fully inhabited, memorable one-dimensional types. The plot never shakes off the feeling that it’s all just a thin fable that’s been blown all out of proportion and along with it, the tone’s gone all misshapen too. It’s at once oversized and modest, an odd combination for something so ostentatiously expensive, dripping with state-of-the-art effects that are what they are. The stalk vines its way into the sky with a convincing slither, the giants stomp with motion captured weightless weightiness, and the humans more or less convincingly occupy the same spaces as all of the above.

As the movie marches forward, with the humans and giants scrambling about in the forest in the sky and back on the ground the kingdom’s citizenry assemble a sort of Ace in the Hole carnival atmosphere around the stalk’s base, the tone grows into what, if I’m feeling charitable, I’d call relaxed, or, if I’m not, I’d call half baked. Still, it allows some of the performers to really pop. I enjoyed McGregor’s smirking swashbuckling and his delight playing his character’s personality as somewhere between a flip Obi-Wan Kenobi and an excessively dashing Errol Flynn. His answer “Not just yet,” to the question “Are we dead?” is one of the movie’s most memorable moments, as is his laughter in a later scene as he watches a giant get repeatedly stung by bees. In a movie with bounteous visual trickery, he’s the best effect. Everything else, from the bland leading roles to the broadly sketched supporting roles and all the borrowed fantasy frippery in between, is so much sleepiness that’s so close to being fun that it’s all the more disappointing for falling short.

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