Jack the Giant Slayer
What It Is
Long ago, in a storybook kingdom far away — or in Great Britain, anyway — two children listen to bedtime stories. One is a farm boy, Jack: his father (Tim Foley) looms almost ominously in his doorway just before he enters, smiles, and sits down to extol the courage of a brave king who saved his subjects from a clan of human-eating giants who descend from the sky. The other child is a princess named Isabelle, whose doting mother (Tandi Wright) tells the same story. And both parents, on opposite ends of the class divide, encourage their kids to seek adventure and do good for the kingdom of Cloister. Put another way, “No one is useless,” Jack asserts.
Cut to the teenaged Jack (Nicholas Hoult), now orphaned and living with his poor uncle (Christopher Fairbank). Sent into town to sell his uncle’s horse, Jack has two brief encounters, one with Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who has snuck away from the palace to spend some disguised time among the peasants, and one with a monk, who bestows on him a satchel of magic beans. “Whatever you do,” warns the monk, “don’t let them get wet.”
Ah well, you know what happens next. It rains, a lot. And one of the beans, wet, sprouts into a humungous beanstalk that carries the princess — who happens to be visiting Jack at that very moment — away into the sky. Horrified, her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), sends a team to retrieve her, including Jack, valiant knights Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and Crawe (Eddie Marsan), and the fellow he’s selected to marry Isabelle, Roderick (Stanley Tucci). After quite a bit of climbing, the men do indeed locate Isabelle, just as she’s being brutally interrogated by extremely ugly and noisy giants. And so their multipart mission — to rescue her, escape the giants, and cut down the beanstalk — begins.
They run into a few obstacles, of course, including the giants’ efforts to cook and eat their captives and a rather violent betrayal by Roderick and his snivelly minion Wicke (Ewen Bremner). This last involves a magic glowing crown that allows Roderick to lord over the giants, which grants him all kinds of menace and power, but also earns him serious resentment from a two-headed giant, General Fallon (the heads voiced by Bill Nighy and John Kassir), who believes he’s the rightful ruler of his increasingly hungry fellows.
These episodic tensions are first set against giant stuff, in the giants’ fortress in the sky, and then against a human-sized backdrop, once the giants make their way to earth, despite the knights, Isabelle, and Jack’s determination to stop them. This last episode is full of special-effecty fury, the giants throwing rather large rocks and flaming trees and the humans firing off decidedly puny-looking arrows. That the humans must outwit the giants, rather than out-man or outfight them, is a foregone conclusion.
Why It’s Fun
Even if it’s based on the 17th century English folktale, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or its several permutations (including a version called “Jack the Giant Killer”), the movie shows influence by previous fairy tale movies (The Princess Bride), today’s comic book and toys-based movies (The Amazing Spider-Man, Transformers), and the mighty Lord of the Rings franchise. Some of these influences are based in technologies (3D and motion-capture performances) and others in story structure (the team grows together through their ordeals, the boy becomes a man, the mismatched romance blooms).
All of these borrowings make Jack the Giant Slayer either too familiar or a mostly clever mix of generic conventions, depending on your tolerance for repetition.
The 3D, by the way, is fine but hardly thrilling. A couple of moments feature projectiles toward viewers, beanstalk roots or arrows, while others highlight depth, as bodies leap or fall from the beanstalk, followed by a very lively camera.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of Nicholas Hoult, once the young boy in About a Boy (2002), have watched him grow up on screen, including a turn as the teen Beast in X-Men: First Class. Here, as always, he’s charming and also intelligent, his performance nuanced even in the midst of much running and jumping and flailing about.
Fans of the folktale may be pleased to see it look so large on screen.
Fans of Ian McShane are happy to see him do most anything. Here again, he’s particularly entertaining, with wry line readings and the king’s outfits providing subtle comedy (he’s got a short, broad torso emphasized by armor and gold, spindly legs in tights, and an elaborate, fur-necked, extra-wide and very red cape for show, which he leaves standing in order to walk freely.
What To Be Aware Of
Roderick early on shows a proclivity for brutality: he pushes one of Elmont’s loyal knights off a cliff and laughs about it; he threatens to kill Jack in a most terrible fashion.
Fighting between giants and humans includes weapons: rocks and nets, swords, knives, axes, hammers, and arrows. The results don’t show much blood, and the shots tend to cut away before the deed is done.
The giants’ lair is filled with human skulls and skeletons, so that the giants might walk on them and make them crunch.
The giant cook rolls a captured Elmont up in a pastry crust, then lays him alongside other giant finger foods, that is, literal “pigs in blankets.”
The giants eat people, biting bodies in half or biting off heads: these horrifying moments are depicted from a distance, so they look more cartoony than upsetting.
Both Jack (right away) and Isabella (five minutes later) lose their good mothers. While this is common in fairytales, it may be worth considering an alternative plot. (See: Brave.)
The giants indulge in all manner of repulsive behavior, including farting, burping, nose-picking, snoring, heavy perspiring, smelling their own armpits, and drooling. That, and, of course, they’re fond of throwing things and slamming into one another.
Some language, including a retort directed at a hungry giant, “Suck my bones.”
6 out of 10
Jack the Giant Slayer
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane
Studio: Warner Bros.
US General Release: March 1, 2013
UK General Release: March 22, 2013