‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ Review
The third row of an IMAX screen is a sufficiently disadvantageous perspective to give you a taste of the way the hero of 'Jack the Giant Slayer' sees the world. From that angle, even regular-sized humans loom ominously overhead; you can imagine how big the giants look. But that's about as impressive as the surprisingly crummy 'Jack' gets.
This uninspired riff on the old 'Jack and the Beanstalk' and 'Jack the Giant Killer' stories recasts the title character as a handsome 18-year-old dressed in a sort of medieval hoodie ("The better to please focus groups my dear!"). Jack (Nicholas Hoult) acquires a purse of magic beans and then misplaces one that grows, upon contact with water, into an enormous beanstalk. The stalk stretches thousands of feet into the air and connects the Earth with some kind of magical sky world populated by mean, nasty giants who are just waiting to get their hands on (and their lips around) humankind. A runaway princess named Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) -- who Jack encounters by total coincidence two different times in the span of about 12 hours -- winds up kidnapped by the giants, inspiring Jack to join a rescue party that includes King Brahmwell's (Ian McShane) most capable guard Elmont (Ewan McGregor), whose beautiful hair indicates he is a good and honest man, and his most trusted adviser Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), whose stringy, ugly hair indicates he is pure evil.
Better movies have been crafted from worse material. But the beanstalk is the only thing here elevating the material beyond typical special effects nonsense -- and only in the most literal sense. Everyone but McGregor looks like they're here to fulfill some kind of contractual obligation; Hoult and Tomlinson have zero chemistry, and scene stealers like Tucci and McShane are helpless to resist the movie's black hole of watery competence. There is the faintest whiff of an idea here about the right and wrong uses of political power, in the form of a magical crown that can control the giants and a repeated motif of people being forced to bow respectfully before their leaders. But saying 'Jack the Giant Slayer' is about dictatorial abuses is sort of like saying 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' is about the dangers of our increasingly mechanized society -- which is to say, it's window dressing on schlock and you'll only think about it because you're so bored by the action.
Speaking of the action, a movie with so many special effects -- giant beanstalks and giant battle scenes and giant giants -- lives and dies by the quality of those visuals and the ones in 'Jack and the Giant Slayer' just aren't very memorable. Given the vast number of creatures and castles and beanstalks, one's inclined to assume that director Bryan Singer's imagination outpaced his budget, but according to The Hollywood Reporter, New Line spent "at least $190 million" to produce it (at least $190 million!). But even with all that money, the world of the giants and the world of the humans never mix well -- their various interactions look like a bunch of A-list actors digitally pasted into some high end video game cut scenes. The only way you can tell the leader of the giants apart from the rest of his generically designed army is his extra head.
'Jack and the Giant Slayer' is the latest and most extreme example of Hollywood's recent obsession with updated children's fairy tales. The formula is simple: cast a few teen-friendly stars to bring in adolescents, and put them in a kids' story that can draw both youngsters and their parents. Even in a sub-genre that has already brought us 'Alice in Wonderland,' 'Red Riding Hood,' and 'Snow White and the Huntsman,' 'Jack' might be the worst of the bunch, a sad caricature of every bad impulse toward bland, four quadrant filmmaking. It's not allowed to be truly whimsical, because that might turn off the teens. It can't be too silly because that might sour the adults. It can't be too dark because that would frighten away the kiddies.
No wonder everyone looks like they're going through the motions. The motions are all this sort of filmmaking allows. It's everything to everyone and nothing all at once, no matter where in the theater you happen to be sitting.
'Jack the Giant Slayer' is in theaters now.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’