Blockbuster/fairytale hybrids are on a roll recently. They’re mostly either dark, revisionist epics or satirical postmodern romps, with few exceptions. The quality, though, ranges from mostly decent (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) to borderline unwatchable (“Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”).
So where does Bryan Singer’s latest, “Jack the Giant Slayer,” fit into all this madness? It leans a little more toward the “dark epic” end of the genre scale, yet it’s not overly serious about itself. As for quality, it’s better than any movie called “Jack the Giant Slayer” has any business being.
Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a young farmhand, gets mixed up in Lord Roderick’s (Stanley Tucci) plot to overthrow the kingdom of Cloister when he comes into possession of some magic beans, which grow into a beanstalk that destroys his home, spirits away Princess Isabelle (Elanor Tomlinson) and places the entire kingdom in danger of being invaded by giants. With the help of Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the captain of the guard, Jack scales the beanstalk to rescue the princess and save the kingdom.
The plot is pretty standard, whereas the execution is anything but. Singer’s “epic-ifying” of the material comes much more naturally than it does for other films of this type, and the visuals are as dazzling as the action is tight and focused. Singer’s ability to show off the scenery and build worlds with only a few shots is astounding, and he gets a surprising amount of mileage out of practical effects and sets (particularly in the beanstalk sequences), rather than have the film collapse under a frenzy of CGI. Speaking of which, the CGI used for the giants is startlingly detailed, and never unintentionally goofy or “off.”
While the characters aren’t fully developed, the actors step up to the plate and all give delightful performances. Hoult never indulges in movie star-isms as the dashing lead, and keeps his everyman character muted and sweet. Tucci and McGregor, conversely, ham it up (but not too much) and prevent the film from being strangled by seriousness.
Yet the film’s greatest asset is its broad appeal. The problem with many of the recent fairytale updates (especially the darker ones) is that they try so hard to cater to an adult audience, but they still leave in a great deal of the simplicity of the original tales (black and white morality, lack of character development, sparse world building, etc.) that caters mostly to children. This leaves the adults out in the cold wanting more, and the films themselves threaten to crumble under their own self-importance.
“Jack the Giant Slayer,” on the other hand, keeps its audience nice and broad, soft-pedaling some of the grimmer material to be more feasible for children (with the exception of one slightly graphic bit toward the end), but including some surprisingly literate moments about how storytelling changes over time, as well as a bit of snarky self-deprecation (but not enough to be obnoxious) for the adults. It’s a perfect balance, and it makes for a fun, breezy film.
That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie, though. Most of the problems are nitpicky, but when they rear their heads, you’ll roll your eyes. For example, did we really need another princess who wants to be independent and then spends most of the film relying on the hero to survive? Well, that’s just part of the genre, we suppose. And did we really need giants that burp and fart and pick their noses? Kids don’t need gross-out humor all the time, Hollywood.
But don’t let those spoil the fun too much: “Jack the Giant Slayer” is a rip-roaring good time at the movies, and a step forward for modern fairytales.
P.S. Sincerest apologies for the pun in the title of this review. Couldn’t resist.
Speakeasy Grade: B
“Jack the Giant Slayer”
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language