It’s been a dozen years since moviegoers took up residence in Middle Earth with the opening of the first Lord of the Rings film, and since the multi-billion dollar success of that franchise, Hollywood has refused to let us leave. Apart from hobbits and their ilk, we’ve had Narnians, Titans, krakens, dragons, trolls, goblins, ghostly pirates, fairy tale characters, inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms and Wonderland, the beings that showed up at Hogwarts from time to time, and whatever the creatures were in The Golden Compass (not counting Nicole Kidman), among many others–and next week we’ll have a visit to Oz, with its witches and flying monkeys. Budgets of $200M or more don’t awe us anymore, 3D impresses us only at its most artful, and our eyes are good enough to tell remarkable CG from the merely proficient. Perhaps that’s why the technically new Jack the Giant Slayer feels so very, very tired, like a direct-to-video entry in a franchise that’s long gone to seed.
Jack is directed by Bryan Singer, and in happier days he directed two of the smartest and best superhero movies, X-Men and its even better sequel. When he opted out of the third in the series for his ill-fated Superman Returns, there were howls of outrage when Fox replaced him with notorious hack Brett Ratner. In Jack, sad to say, Singer’s work is almost indistinguishable from Ratner’s brand of impersonal spectacle–if Singer’s name weren’t in the credits, there’d be no reason to associate him with the film.
Despite (or because of) four credited writers, not to mention all the script doctors that often work behind the scenes on tentpoles like this, Jack never finds an original spin on its fairy tale story, or any cleverness or wit in its telling. The final script, credited to Darren Lemke, Dan Studney and frequent Singer collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (David Dobkin also gets a “story” credit for early drafts), gives us plucky teen Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who in this version lives with his impoverished uncle instead of his mother, and is persuaded to sell his horse for magic beans by a renegade monk. This gets him mixed up with equally plucky Princess Isabelle (Eleonor Tomlinson), her evil fiancee Roderick (Stanley Tucci), her official protector Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and the King (Ian McShane). Soon enough the bean that should never touch water (someone was watching Gremlins late at night) has sprouted into an enormous stalk that leads up to the land of the giants, ruled by General Fallon (a motion-capture version of Bill Nighy), who for some reason has an extra, non-speaking head. The giants have just been waiting for a beanstalk to get them entry back on Earth, where they see humans as bite-size meals. The movie’s mythology also includes a crown, forged with the literal heart of a giant, that gives whoever wears it absolute control over the entire giant race. (What Dick Cheney would have done for one of those…)
Jack isn’t as shlocky as, say, Clash of the Titans, but it’s slack and unsurprising. Hoult, who was droll as a love-struck zombie in Warm Bodies, still seems vaguely undead here, so pale and angular he could be a high school vampire. Tomlinson is lovely and not called upon to be much more than that; their romance is desultory. McGregor at least has the right slightly wry attitude (he gets some chuckles when a giant chef is preparing to turn him into a hors d’oeuvre), and in a version of the tale that wasn’t trying to attract a teenage boy audience, the Princess might have noticed the swashbuckler standing just behind her. Meanwhile, Tucci seems to be trying for something reminiscent of Chris Sarandon in The Princess Bride,, but without the material that might have made that amusing, and while Nighy provides a marvelously evil voice, McShane is completely wasted.
Visually, the film is spectacular but never thrilling. Many, many millions went into creating those giant CG beanstalks (there end up being several, and when one is chopped down, it falls for miles), and those hordes of motion-captured giants, and they all look fine. Yet without any inspiration or originality, they just register as technical accomplishments that fulfill what’s required of them. When Peter Jackson made the original Lord of the Rings series, and for that matter when Singer himself made his X-Men films, one could feel the personal drive and commitment that went into them–these were stories the filmmakers were driven to tell. Jack the Giant Slayer, like last year’s The Hobbit, feels like a contractual commitment. The good news, at least potentially, is that Singer is returning to the X-Men series for its next sequel. Hopefully it’s because that’s where he truly wants to be.
Trailer: Jack The Giant Killer
Wait, a movie based on a fable, but with a dark and grown-up sensibility? I've never seen anything like it!
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