JACK THE GIANT SLAYER-- 3 STARS
I'll be honest as a movie critic with at least some form of discerning taste and scruples. I haven't given any effort at all to this recent wave of fairy tales turned into buffed-up movies or genres they are not. They all look ridiculous. They look like pretenders and the movie versions of rich white kids that try to dress up all swag and tough. I skip them without much thought.
I didn't care to see Red Riding Hood attempt an element of horror or Beastly look like a CW show a few years back. I had no desire in the world to choose between the two competing Snow White flicks from last year, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. One had Nathan Lane and one had Kristen Stewart and their previews told the whole story. That was all it took to keep me away. Even here in 2013, with this current trend continuing, I had no driving interest in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. With each one, I kept asking "what's next?" and pictured the lovey-dovey Vikings of the CapitalOne credit card commercials getting their own romantic comedy.
It's not that I can't get into a classic story getting a twist or two for fun. I love a good mash-up. It's that the titles I mentioned just went so over-the-top to make you want to care that they over-hyped themselves. They tried too hard to be different. That and I'm still a reader like everyone else. Once the ugly reviews came in for every single one of them (11% for Red Riding Hood, 20% for Beastly, 50% for Mirror Mirror, 48% for Snow White and the Huntsman, and 15% for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, via Rotten Tomatoes) from the majority critical opinion, their deals were sealed and my ticket money went elsewhere. I won't even throw a Redbox buck at most of those.
However, I was recently sold on the idea of giving Jack the Giant Slayer a chance and I can honestly say that I'm glad I did. Instead of trying too hard to blaze a different trail or modify the legend as extremely as those aforementioned movies, director Bryan Singer (of X-Men and The Usual Suspects fame) stuck to the core story ideals and delivered a very grand and fun adventure. While it borrows from plenty of other better movies that came before it, Jack the Giant Slayer is one buffed-up fairy tale movie that works.
What makes Jack and the Giant Slayer work where the other super-sized fairy tale movies have failed is sticking to the story roots. Essentially, all of these movies take a 10 minute bedtime story and rewrite history. None of them are pure retellings. Most stray way too far to either modernize, darken, or modify the fantasy elements that made them classic fairy tales with modern gags, references, and devices. Jack the Giant Slayer embraces its bedtime story roots, uses it as a backstory, and, before the credits roll at the end, throws a fun nod at real English history.
While Jack the Giant Slayer raises its fairy tale setting to a big cinematic scale, the narrative course is a familiar one. You've seen in before in other movies. A young boy is raised on bedtime stories of long-ago adventure and giants in the kingdom of Cloister, where a great former king was able to defeat and control the giants with a magical crown and secure the only remaining magic beans that reach their world.
Unfortunately, the young boy is soon orphaned and grows up into a strapping young man named Jack (Warm Bodies star/heartthrob Nicholas Hoult and graduate of the Tom Cruise School of Always-Agape Expression) with all of the potential in the world and nowhere to go, stuck at home on his uncle's farm (Luke Skywalker anyone?). One day, while venturing into town, the noble Jack defends the honor of a young woman, who just happens to be Princess Isabelle (newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson), daughter to the highly respected King Brahmwell (Ian McShane, flexing all possible gravitas), and catches her eye. Naturally, like all movie princesses, she longs to shed her royal image and marry for love, rather than being betrothed to the older Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci, not hiding any future villainy), one of the king's advisers.
Jack also gets mixed up with a monk on the run from one of the Roderick's thugs (Ewen Bremner, this time without his usual speech impediment). The doomed monk bequeaths to Jack a nondescript pouch of beans with instructions of delivering them to the monastery for a reward and the one warning of "don't get them wet." Roderick, as we learn, is in possession of that ancient magical crown and wants to usurp the king.
Later that night, Princess Isabelle puts on a commoner disguise and escapes the city to find some adventure on her own. Caught in the rain, she ends up seeking refuge from the weather at, sure enough, Jack's farm. Awkward romantic pondering leads to one of those beans getting wet and a giant beanstalk sprouting from underneath the farmhouse. It takes Isabelle and the house right up with it toward the night sky with Jack unable to hold on.
The appearance of the beanstalk evokes the old kingdom's ominous legends of the giants living about them. Fear grips the kingdom, especially with the missing princess, and the army is mobilized to the scenes. King Brahmwell arranges a team of his elite guard, led by Elmont (Ewan McGregor, paying forward the veteran molder-of-men role Liam Neeson did for him) and his right hand man Crawe (Eddie Marsan), Lord Roderick, and the volunteering Jack who feels responsible for the princess's predicament, despite a fear of heights. Together, they climb the beanstalk and find a forested realm of giants above the clouds and the captured princess.
The grotesque giants are led by the two-headed Fallon (where Bill Nighy does most of the talking, work he's used to doing from his Pirates of the Caribbean Davey Jones days) and they have long sought revenge against the humans below that separated their worlds. Now, with the beanstalk path and a little Isabelle collateral, they are poised to invade. With a few predictable curveballs along the way, our movie crescendos into the inevitable clash, rescue, and hero birth we expect and happily see coming.
Like I said earlier, we've seen these story elements before in other fairy tales and movies. We've seen the commoner fall for royalty and vice versa. We've seen Ewan McGregor play the dashing hero. We've seen Stanley Tucci play the lecherous villain. We've seen Ian McShane embolden himself as a stalwart leader. We've seen Bill Nighy play a speechifying CGI heavy and adversary. While much has been done before, the delivery of it all is very well done and the predictability leaves your mind very quickly. No one is winning any Oscars here for performance, but Hoult and McGregor are highly likeable heroes and McShane is always good.
You don't come to Jack the Giant Slayer for the familiar story roots. You come for the spectacle and the movie spared no expense. With a budget of nearly $200 million and a release delay from last summer to this spring for 3D conversion, you can tell the special effects teams and Warner Brothers were hard at work, as was director Bryan Singer. He skipped returning to his X-Men franchise two years ago to do Jack the Giant Slayer and the final product was worth his time. The CGI giants emote and look amazing, right down to the snot and skin pores. There's a surprisingly large amount of solid set design going on to create big castles, beanstalks, and battlefields. It's not all CGI code and green screen and that really helps create a rich story setting with less inherent fakery. There are some big-time action set pieces that keep the peril and pace coming. Singer's longtime personal film editor John Ottman pulls his usual double duty composing a big soaring musical score fit for the adventurous occasion. I'll admit that I was impressed. Since I play the educator on this website, buyer beware, this film is still a human-munching PG-13, so it's not as family friendly as advertised.
Jack the Giant Slayer does just enough new things with the classic fairy tale source material to be a step up without tail-spinning into overproduced confection and cheese. I think they could have toned a few things down to earn a PG rating and make a killing with the family crowd, but a PG-13 rating hasn't stopped parents before, so a little extra bite works for the rest of us. That and last year's expensive flop and similarly measured John Carter (a movie I was on the minority side for really enjoying) proved that a PG rating is no box office guarantee and still acts as Budweiser water to content.
While it's no fine wine or instant classic, Bryan Singer and his team demonstrated better than the other steroid-enhanced fairy tale movies that the most important thing with this kind of retelling is to not tear up the roots. Jack the Giant Slayer's embrace of its bedtime story nature and that is its greatest strength. It should be a guide for future fairy tale enhancements to stick to the core ideals that made it great and to mold your spectacle around it, not above it. This success here with Jack the Giant Slayer might just give me some hope for Sam Raimi's upcoming high-profile Wizard of Oz prequel Oz, the Great and Powerful coming just a week later. I won't get ramped up again. That's another rant for another review.
LESSON #1: SAVE THE PRINCESS, IMPRESS A KING, EARN HIS RESPECT, AND YOU JUST MIGHT GET THE GIRL-- As aforementioned, Jack the Giant Slayer doesn't throw anyone for any loop with new emotional heft or unpredictability. Like Aladdin without the genie or the lamp, Jack pines for Princess Eleanor, who is out of his class and league. Still, Jack gets his chance to follow that lesson order and get the girl. The key step in there is earning respect. Plenty of people can save the damsel in distress, but few can keep their humble and noble character along the way.
LESSON #2: DON'T F - - K WITH GIANTS-- They are bigger than you, stronger than you, and enjoy the taste of humans. You shoot little arrows that cross a football field and hit like a sliver on something triple your size. They throw entire trees that are on fire a country mile. Batten down the hatches or run for the damn hills! If you're going to take them on, make sure you have a magic crown that overcomes them with obedience and brings them to their knees.
LESSON #3: RUNNING AWAY FROM ONE THING IS THE SAME AS RUNNING TOWARDS SOMETHING ELSE-- For the last lesson, I will twist a repeated mantra from our movie characters. It's classic optimist-versus-pessimist with optimism always coming out on top. The princess is running away from her royal responsibilities, but meets the humble Jack that informs her that maybe she's not running from something, but towards something else. That simple logic rings true with most of life's big choices. When we avoid one thing, another thing, good or bad, will present itself. Time is always moving and our life is along for that ride. We can hear all the guidance available for that ride, but only one person can do the steering.