Jack the Giant Slayer
Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney; Story by Darren Lemke and David Dobkin
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Eleanor Tomlinson
Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language
Running Time of 114 Minutes
Delayed for almost a year, arguably overpriced, and anti-hyped by the media, Jack the Giant Slayer (formerly Jack the Giant Killer – they re-titled it too) was clearly set to be 2013′s John Carter: a huge budget film mistreated by its studio releasing in March to plodding results. Putting all of that aside as none of it matters in the context of the film itself, Jack the Giant Slayer continues the trend of retelling classic stories for new audiences accompanied by a lot of action and special effects. What sets Jack the Giant Slayer apart, if only a little bit, is the light approach. This isn’t the “dark” or “gritty” take on an old story that Hollywood seems to be obsessed with, but rather a slightly witty fantasy adventure the likes of which are too rare. Director Bryan Singer works in the realm of kings and castles, of swords and giants, and retells the classic story of Jack and the Beanstalk with just enough magic to make for a decently enjoyable adventure.
There is a charm and silliness running through the veins of Jack the Giant Slayer that feels comfortable and welcome. A light approach can go a long way in making this sort of fantasy work, and for much of the run-time Bryan Singer and his cast are in on that feel, complemented by John Ottman’s rousing score. (Ottman also edited the film.) This is a classic story told in a mostly straight forward fashion. This isn’t metatextual or modern humor either, but rather goofy character moments and over-the-top jokes. The cast is game for this as Ewan McGregor (with amazing hair), Stanley Tucci, and Ewen Bremner ham it up and never quite go too gonzo. This approach extends to the action and allows the film to have a certain swashbuckling adventure tone that is just plain fun. The action scenes are composed with clean shots and a slight wink, making it both easy to see and understand what’s going on and palatable for a wide family audience. A few moments of violence (the film is PG-13) seem at odds with the film’s tone, even if it comes at the hands of computer generated giants.
The design of the film is a mixed affair, which hinders some of the enjoyment. The castles and magical lands have a medieval feel that I appreciated, and the forests, fountains, and especially the giant beanstalks are textured and beautiful. A scene involving the collapse of a beanstalk is one of the more spectacular things I have seen in recent big-budget cinema. The giants, on the other hand, look too computer generated in wide shots, especially when there are masses of them huddled or when they attack. The main giant, General Fallon, has a unique two-headed design and is voiced with menace and glee by the terrific Bill Nighy, but the rest muddled together in a mass of amorphous figures. This lends trouble in the film’s final act as we lose focus and things get explosive; the human moments are often better than the ones involving many giants. Interestingly the close-up shots of the giants are far more terrifying and have more texture than the wide shots, and when focusing on just one as opposed to an army the conceit of the giants works.
As our hero Jack, Nicholas Hoult brings an affable charm and he ably carries the film. Not much time is spent with Jack before the adventure begins and like much of the film’s characters he is an archetype, lacking nuance or dimension. The farm-boy Hero is a knowable archetype, though, and Hoult makes it work. The film’s biggest issue lies in the motivation of certain characters, and this is a flaw of the script by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney. The film’s middle section becomes muddled and contrived as characters without much depth behave in ways that are hard to define or comprehend. There are multiple individuals running around with abandon and it can certainly alienate the viewer. Amongst this is a flat and obvious romance between Jack and Isabelle (newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson) and a strange magical crown without much explanation. When the film starts to take itself seriously it seems to forget its true purpose.
Regardless of this, Bryan Singer is able to bring things home in a satisfying fashion. This is not a spectacular adventure, but in terms of the trends of this type of fantasy filmmaking and the re-telling of classic stories in strikes me as a step in the right direction. There is just enough swashbuckling and fun to leave a smile on one’s face, and a clever ending that I found to be a genuine hoot. If the film loses itself in the middle there is always a funny gesture from Ewan McGregor or a rousing note on John Ottman’s score that reminds that Jack the Giant Slayer isn’t so bad after all.