‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ a mixed bag of adventure and excessive CGI
Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney
Perhaps it’s fitting that a literal tug of war is pivotal in Jack the Giant Slayer, a large-scale blockbuster retelling of the famous fairy tale about Jack and the magical beanstalk. The film itself appears to represent a creative tug of war, a battle of wills between creativity and commerce. On the one hand, it’s a product of a crass decision to fashion some would-be epic out of a familiar story in the public domain. On the other hand, it has elements of a cheeky throwback to the adventure films in the days where Errol Flynn ruled. With these options warring with each other, sometimes in the same scene, Jack the Giant Slayer is a sometimes charming, sometimes stagnant CGI-infused action film.
Nicholas Hoult, a long way from being the title character in About A Boy, is Jack, a wayward teen struggling to keep his late parents’ farm going, with little profit. One day, he goes to the kingdom hoping to sell his horse, but only gets magical beans in return. Here, Jack is paired up with the princess, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who wishes for her freedom, not an arranged marriage to the odious, scheming adviser (Stanley Tucci) to her father, the king (Ian McShane, always welcome despite having far too little to do). In this version, the beans don’t get planted, they just get wet as if they’re ancestors of the Gremlins, sprouting a massive beanstalk that leads to the land of the giants. They’re a fearsome bunch led by the two-headed Fallon (voiced by Bill Nighy), who holds an old yet massive grudge against mankind that he’s only too happy to see paid off.
Where Jack the Giant Slayer steps right, avoiding the pitfalls of another recent fairy-tale update, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters—this is a woeful sentence to craft, mind you, but let’s power through it—is by not taking itself incredibly seriously. The script, by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney (David Dobkin is credited as a co-story writer), is neither overly jokey nor excessively dour. In each major sequence, there are a couple of quirky and disarming little flourishes that puncture the tension appropriately. Unfortunately, few of these minor oddities appear in the sometimes muddy, murky visual palette. Director Bryan Singer has proven his action-movie chops with the X-Men series, yet Jack the Giant Slayer is a film whose colorless, gargantuan CGI creations set the tone for the bland setting enlivened only by the performers. As such, the 3D, in IMAX or regular screens, is an unpleasant addition.
At the very least, Jack the Giant Slayer is peopled with an overqualified group of actors, game to battle through simulated wind and rain, and goofy costume and hair choices. Hoult and Tomlinson pine after each other adequately, doing slightly better in the romantic subplot—as in every fairy tale, the princess is unable to marry for love, unless the worthy young commoner can prove himself—than in Jack’s apparent inability to grow up and leave behind childish things, and her weak defiance of the king in wanting to marry for mushy old love. Ewan McGregor, as the leader of the king’s guard, indulges in some Flynn-like idolatry, but he’s surprisingly light and fun in his supporting role. Such an attitude is especially fitting when, as happens halfway through, he’s called upon to extricate himself from becoming, literally, a pig in a blanket. Stanley Tucci, as Roderick, the king’s loathsome adviser, is agreeably villainous though the details of his skullduggery are best left unconsidered, as they fall apart after you give them even the hint of a second thought. And Nighy, once more playing a villain in a sprawling epic through the magic of motion-capture technology, is fairly solid and dodgy as Fallon, though the motion-capture design of his character makes him impossible to recognize except vocally.
Bits and pieces of Jack the Giant Slayer work very well, from the first time Jack and the king’s guard witness a giant to when the beanstalk first explodes from below Jack’s small house. And maybe because Singer, co-writer and frequent collaborate McQuarrie, and the impressive cast are involved, this movie is decent instead of a dire embarrassment. If nothing else, Jack the Giant Slayer promises an exciting new project for Bryan Singer, one where he has more creative control and more of an ability to fully commit to tipping his hat to films like The Adventures of Robin Hood, movies that could be playful and serious in almost the same breath, full of derring-do, breathless action, and thrilling romance. This film has moments where it tries to hit, and comes close to, such peaks, but can’t stop fighting against the corporate necessity of shoving CGI down our throats until we choke. Jack the Giant Slayer is merely adequate, a tug of war that resulted in a tie.
— Josh Spiegel