Rating: PG 13 (scenes of intense fantasy action violence, brief language, and some frightening images)
Length: 114 minutes
Release date: March 1, 2013
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Drama
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
The idea of gargantuan beings living just above the horizon with nothing more than a magical floating landmass to keep them from crushing tiny farmhouses is enough to make anyone nervous. Like a bodybuilder on the top bunk of a children’s bed, one wrong move tips the scales of war in “Jack the Giant Slayer,” in which a forced peace is the only thing stopping the sky from literally opening up to release a vengeful race of giants.
Director Bryan Singer creates simple but intriguing folklore for this adaptation of the familiar English tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In the distant past, a legendary ruler battled the giants until he discovered the secret of how to permanently banish the creatures by using an enchanted crown to command them. Trapped in their own skyward kingdom, the giants’ hatred for humans grew steadily, while the humans below forgot their oversized enemies ever truly existed.
When the gateway is accidentally opened, it not only grants the giants a chance for payback, but also inspires the sneaky Lord Roderick, portrayed by veteran actor Stanley Tucci, to try and overthrow the kingdom of Cloister. All of these subplots work way too hard to add dimension to a story that ends up relying on CGI effects and punchy one-liners. Young viewers will be most entertained by the epic battles and lush digital scenery so common to recent fantasy films. It’s not an award winner by any means, but it offers good fun for the family, with hints of mild violence softened by the fanciful nature of the film.
As far as morality tales go, “Jack and the Beanstalk” has always been a tricky sell. In the original tale, a peasant boy foolishly sells his family’s only livelihood, invades the home of an unsuspecting giant, robs the giant blind, flees the scene of the crime, and kills the giant when the creature attempts to reclaim its stolen property. While this most recent adaptation retains much of the original violence, the writers managed to make Jack a genuinely lovable hero instead of a lucky scoundrel.
For one thing, there’s a love story involved. Jack, played by Nicholas Hoult of “About a Boy” and “Warm Bodies” fame, quickly falls for Princess Isabelle, a young woman who seeks adventure and flees her planned marriage to Lord Roderick. Traditional male and female roles are blatant in “Jack the Giant Slayer.” Eleanor Tomlinson portrays the princess as spirited and brave, but Isabelle still seems to need saving from one plight after the next.
The gateway to the giants’ realm is initially opened when the rain causes the magic beans to transform into a stalk, destroy Jack’s sad hovel, and carry Isabelle up into the sky. She finds herself on the verge of being eaten and chased more times than anyone can count by the main giants, who include John Kassir and Bill Nighy as the two heads of General Fallon. And perhaps, it’s the young age of the expected audience, but the “love” story is developed just enough to make Jack and Isabelle’s marriage plausible at the end of the movie.
Unsurprisingly, a large dose of charm comes from Elmont, the king’s crusader, played by Scottish actor Ewan McGregor. Elmont is an elite fighter who is comically lighthearted in the most threatening moments and proves himself to be worth the king’s gold by repeatedly escaping dangerous encounters. The trio of Jack, Isabelle, and Elmont becomes the kingdom’s main defense against the dual threats of Roderick and the giants. Unfortunately, the task of getting the magical crown away from Roderick overwhelms the second half of the movie.
Action lovers will revel in this part of the film, but others may tire of an overly long struggle to hold the castle against the giants’ army. On the bright side, the beanstalk is more than a convenient way to travel in Singer’s story-it becomes a key factor in the giant’s eventual defeat. Visually, the battle’s start is one of the most attractive parts of the film as the giants launch beanstalks down to the lower realm in attack. Giving the giants greater depth or even a fear-inspiring presence would have served the movie better. The giants are only intimidating due to their size and filthy unclipped toenails.
In fact, a large part of the digital effects budget was likely used to come up with the gritty, rash-like texture of the giant’s skin. The movie is yet another 3D romp, after all, and the latest in a long line of ironically unimaginative fairytale remakes. Overall, “Jack the Giant Slayer” is a film with a lot of heart but not enough guts. Bryan Singer didn’t tap into much of the social criticism and emotional conflict that made the comic book adaptations “X-Men” and “X2: X-Men United” universal successes. But maybe he wasn’t trying to, and fans of this new “Jack” tale aren’t likely to notice anyway.