I was so ready to trash this movie with my devastating wittiness. The title of this piece was going to be “Jack Squat,” and the opening line was going to be, “Irony is a movie about merciless giants that ends up being mercifully short.”
Come on. It was supposed to come out last summer but is being dumped in late winter like a final, irritating, unromantic snowstorm. It’s based on Jack and the Beanstalk, an OK story but not one worthy of 200 million dollars in computer effects. They even changed the name of the thing from Jack the Giant Killer to Jack the Giant Slayer, presumably so people wouldn’t confuse it with the 1962 masterpiece of the same name starring Kerwin Mathews and Torin Thatcher, with stop-motion effects by Jim Danforth, who went on to animate the dinosaurs from Hammer Films’ caveman epic When Dinosaurs Rules the Earth in 1970. Oddly enough, Mathews and Thatcher also appeared together in—
God, make it stop! I can riff on B-movies for hours on end, and I don’t need no IMDb for help, neither. You have no idea how long that last paragraph could’ve been.
I did, however, check IMDb for the running time of Jack the Giant Slayer. It turns out it was not a mercifully short movie, clocking in at just under two hours. It only seemed short because, well, it was kinda good.
I don’t mean good in a Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese way, or even in a Bryan Singer way, but when it comes to the countless Middle-Earthian adventures to unspool across theater screens since The Fellowship of the Ring altered the course of cinema in 2001, this is one of the few that has the good sense not to take itself seriously. Frankly, it was a hell of a lot more enjoyable than The Hobbit: an Unexpected Exercise in Tedium, I’ll tell you that.
The plot of Jack borrows heavily from Disney’s Aladdin in that we have a Princess (Isabelle, played by an appealing Eleanor Tomlinson) betrothed to a Jafar-like character (Roderick, played by Stanley Tucci) with evil plans to overthrow the kingdom. Bored by palace life, Isabelle runs away and lands in the arms of a handsome young farm boy named Jack (Nicholas Hoult). But instead of a magic lamp we have magic beans, and instead of an improv-comic genie we have a race of man-eating giants.
Entrusted not to get the magic beans he is safeguarding wet, Jack does exactly that, with the result being a 5-mile high beanstalk that reaches all the way up to the land of giants in the sky. With Isabelle trapped at the top, the King (Ian McShane) sends Jack, Roderick, his best soldier Elmont (Ewan McGregor), and a crack team of warriors up to rescue her. The rest of the film is a fast-paced, semi-comical action romp that barely pushes the bounds of PG, much less the PG-13 rating the film was assigned.
Ever since the Lord of the Rings films, movie goers seem intolerant of fluffiness in the fantasy genre, but I’m of the apparently unpopular view that movies about monsters and wizards and castles are intrinsically silly. By the time Return of the King ended I was ready to slap the shit out of the next character who fell to his knees in slo-mo anguish over some homoerotic tragedy or another. The characters in Jack the Giant Killer are unapologetically skin-deep, popcorn movie stock. None of them learns a damned thing. It was almost cathartic.
My two favorite performances in the film are delivered by Ian McShane and Ewan McGregor. First of all, I love Ian McShane. Not in a gay way, but in that way that I love actors who can take a nothing part with trite dialog and still burn up the screen with charisma. McShane, who appeared in two episodes of American Horror Story: Asylum as serial killer Leigh Emerson, was the only actor in the entire season of the show who came within a mile of upstaging Jessica Lange, and that’s saying something.
I also love Ewan McGregor, possibly in a gay way. For some reason my PFC tribemate James Killough has a strong dislike for the man, which I don’t understand. I was actually going to say an irrational dislike, but James is also my editor, and I figure that word will never make it in. Anyway, McGregor gives substance to any line of meaningless dialog, a skill that was put to the test time and again in the Star Wars prequels, and his films invariably become more interesting whenever he is on screen. I’d say he would make a good Bond, but he reminds me of a slight-of-build Timothy Dalton, and we know how that worked out for the Bond franchise.
All that said, Jack the Giant Slayer is fun and nothing more. Bryan Singer is a wizard with a camera and inarguably a talented filmmaker, but he seems to have come up short in the vision department this time around. Maybe he’s still feeling so burned by the cold reception given to his Superman reboot and to Valkrie that he said, “You want mindless tripe, here you go.” In the end, it feels like a live-action movie that could just as easily have been a Sony Pictures animated flick. Cloudy with a Chance of Giants, perhaps?
The other big problem – and I hope this isn’t a trend because it happened in The Hobbit, too – is the long, expositional opening montage. While less herky-jerk from a storytelling standpoint than Peter Jackson’s Hobbit intro, this montage is computer animated in such a way that it looks like a low-budget kids’ show. It’s a strange, anachronistic choice, especially since the “audience” for the montage is an 8-year-old version of Jack circa the 1300s. Couldn’t they just as easily have executed it in the form of a medieval puppet show and upped the charm factor 500%?
With a few script alterations toward the beginning, more genuine sweetness, and some irreverent humor, Jack the Giant Slayer could have had similar appeal to The Princess Bride, given its fairytale origins, solid cast, and filmmaking pedigree. Nice try, but, to paraphrase the Dread Pirate Roberts, I’ll most likely forget it in the morning.
Eric rates this movie: