JACK THE GIANT SLAYER Review: The Bigger They Are …
In 1995, director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Chistopher McQuarrie burst onto the scene with an incredibly crafted film called The Usual Suspects. The intricate story is one of crime, love, death, and double-cross, with dialogue that crackles and direction that keeps the viewer not only interested, but invested. In my opinion, it is one of the best films that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t make. The film went on to win two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay for McQuarrie.
Nearly eighteen years later (feeling old now?), the duo has re-teamed to give us Jack and the Giant Slayer, an action fantasy film (in 3-D!) with dialogue from McQuarrie that is so far from crackling that it’s unforgettable, and direction that shows that Singer is not a master of the medium, but rather a slave to it.
Jack and the Giant Slayer is based on folklore (“Jack and the Beanstalk,” with a hint of “Jack the Giant Killer”) that has had several variations over the years, but with three basic constants: a young male protagonist, magic beans, and giants. In this big-screen telling, which contains those three elements, Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies; X-Men: First Class) plays Jack, an English farm boy in medieval-ish times who, when charged to go to the market to sell his uncle’s horse (Jack’s parents are dead), instead finds himself part of a plot to overthrow the king. In a moment of generosity, he trades the horse to a desperate monk for a bag of magic beans. The only warning the monk give to Jack is to not get the beans wet. Maybe their not magic, but rather Mogwai.
Something Jack doesn’t know is that the monk had stolen the beans from Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the most trusted advisor of King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), who has plans to overthrow the king by using the magic beans to grow a gigantic beanstalk leading to a land of giants – giants who had been ousted from the kingdom by an ancestor of Brahmwell’s countless years before. Also using a magic crown that would make the giants his loyal subjects (seriously), Roderick had planned to bring the giants back and rule them along with all of England.
While at the marketplace, before all the monk and magic bean madness took off, Jack had found himself defending the honor of a young woman who was being accosted by three drunkards. It turns out the young woman was King Brahmwell’s daughter, Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who had fled the castle because she’s one of those movie princesses who has grown tired of the confines of the rich and mighty. Out to fetch the princess and bring her home is Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the king’s best soldier.
Jack takes his magic beans home, where his uncle spills them across the floor and Jack recovers all but one which, unbeknownst to him, falls into the cracks in the rickety floor. The uncle leaves the shack as nothing more than a manner of convenience (seriously, you NEVER see him again in the movie) and, as if on cue … lightning and thunder and rain, with that poor magic bean just aching to soak in the latter.
Isabelle again runs away from home, and as fate (read: plot contrivance) would have it, she seeks shelter at Jack’s house. There is romantic tension, the rain hits the bean, the gigantic beanstalk thrusts from the earth and through the house, but Jack is left behind as Isabelle is carried skyward to the land of the giants. It’s up to Jack, Elmont, Roderick, and others to climb the stalk and rescue the princess.
Yes. This from creative team behind The Usual Suspects.
Just as writers will exclaim when picking up an award, so to should they lament when laying an egg: it all starts with the written word. In addition to being completely lackluster in terms of dialogue (there isn’t one memorable line in the thing – not even an attempt at a catchphrase), McQuarrie’s script has overall story problems, and I suspect those problems start with the source material.
The story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is incredibly bare-boned; it really is little more than a pauper lad, magic beans, and giants. So to build something around that premise offers the double-edged sword of limitless possibilities (little to be beholden to, no rabid fan base to appease), yet required to include those three elements which, when you think about it, are rather silly; the whole thing is, after all, little more than a fairy tale. Faced with this, McQuarrie’s choices seem slapdash. He fleshes out the backstory enough to give the giants a motive for vengeance (which allows for characters like the royals and Elmont), but the addition of palace intrigue and romance feels terribly forced (at best), or contrived (at worst).
Also hurting McQuarrie (or exposing his flaws) is the fact that we live in a time when cable television offers plenty of high-quality period drama – shows like Game of Thrones – so we have become accustomed to characters from long-ago that are rich with depth. Here, they are a means to an end. And if you balk that those TV characters have hours to develop, I will point to McQuarrie’s work on The Usual Suspects as Exhibit A of his ability to develop characters within the time limitations of a film.
As for the giants, they are characters, and I also hold McQuarrie accountable for the fact that while this is supposed to be a 3-D movie, the giants are remarkably – and disappointingly – two-dimensional. They look a lot like humans – only larger and much more neanderthal – and appear to have human traits. Yet, as far as personalities go … nothing. They might as well have been the aliens from Independence Day; completely devoid of any characteristics or traits, serving only as props.
But where McQuarrie’s sins are those of word, Singer’s sins are those of vision.
The obvious (at least to me) issues are maddening because they are so unavoidable – costumes, sets, and key visuals. Sure, McGregor looks dashing in his black armor, but his black armor looks like something a larper put together in his basement, and the rest of the cast looks similarly dressed. They are royalty; they ought not look like they bought their garb and armor off the back of a truck. As for the sets, my greatest complaint is with the marketplace, which looked like nothing more than a RenFest, and I’ve never been to a RenFest, so the sets actually looked like nothing more than the sets on the commercials for RenFests that I’ve seen over the course of my life. And for those key visuals, the one I have specifically in mind is when the first beanstalk sends Jack’s house skyward. The scene is so dark, it feels like it’s hiding flaws, not showcasing special effects.
And don’t get me started on the special effects. They were not good, and by that, I mean I found myself transported back to the 1990s, when green-screen technology had escaped the blatant obviousness that the ’80s offered, but still seemed ultimately unrealistic to those who know what to look for. But in the end, these things are minor.
I mentioned earlier that Singer is a slave to the medium, and I meant that in two ways. First, because this is a 3-D film, I cannot help but wonder how many of his decisions as a director were made BECAUSE of the 3-D aspect. Since I saw this in 2-D (intentionally, my LIFE OF PI lessons be damned), many of Singer’s shot choices are blatantly obvious attempts to maximize (exploit?) the 3-D effect. For me, this is not a venial sin, but rather a cardinal sin. Filmmakers put their vision on film, period. If that plays to the additionally-bespectacled crowd, then fabulous for them … otherwise, put the glasses down and no one will get hurt. The moment a director allows the periphery to drive the vision, the periphery becomes the vision, and that’s no vision at all – that’s obligation.
Second, it is painfully evident that Singer is intentionally targeting the film’s PG-13 rating, as evidenced by a combination of things. First, the giants, despite their lack of character, are brutal creatures. Still, their brutality is only ever hinted at. Whether munching on sheep for snacks or, well, treating humans the same way, the raw brutality of the giants is only suggested or their actions obscured, keeping the kiddies (relatively) safe from nightmares. On the other end, there are moments in this film that involve boogers and farts (no kidding) that are clearly intended to play to those viewers who are closer to 13 than they are to PG.
Overall, while Jack and the Giant Slayer has some entertaining action sequences and is very well paced, there is not enough good to salvage it from being a sloppy execution of a scattered idea.
Out of five stars …