Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) – Review

Review: Jack the Giant Slayer is a fairytale adventure film that is not sure exactly who its audience is – children or young adults. The film is a somewhat new take on the classic story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Here, Jack is a farm boy who dreams of more. Jack sets off to town to sell his house and wagon for supplies to help his uncle manage the farm, but ends up returning with only bean, whereby he is berated by his uncle. Meanwhile, a young princess Isabelle also longs for more in her life. She runs away from her castle home. Caught in the rain, she takes shelter in a small farm house, running into Jack. His beans, not fully accounted for, get wet and a massive beanstalk grows into the heavens, taking the princess with it – though, Jack falls from the soaring house in the calamity. Awakening to find the King and his guard looking for the princess, Jack and a few of the King’s finest men scale the beanstalk to find Isabelle. However, they discover a land ruled by man-eating giants – giants that have longed to leave their kingdom to feed on the world of men. This is now a rescue mission.

I think growing up in the 1980s with films like The Princess Bride, Labyrinth, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Secret of NIMH, Time Bandits, The Witches (though, this did come out in 1990), Legend, The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story, and the Disney animated features (among others – like George Lucas’s adventure trilogies: Star Wars and Indiana Jones) has preconditioned me to love adventure fantasy films (or at least have some sort of nostalgic reaction to them). Thus, Jack the Giant Slayer was something I actually wanted to see (despite my complete lack of trust in director Bryan Singer and the poor job that New Line Cinema did marketing the film). Watching the film, however, I noticed that it has a very uneven tone. It is not sure if it wants to be a kids’ movie (action, but with mild violence and nothing too scary and a silly sense of humor) or something for young adults (more intense action and violence, more mature relationships and sense of humor – to some extent). The film sorted wanted to be both, and thus did not really work for either. It is too violent and scary for kids, and tonally too geared towards kids for young adults. It seems like it wanted to be this generation’s The Princess Bride (although, lacking the charm and magic of that film) but also made for fans that grew up with The Princess Bride.

The film, originally titled Jack the Giant Killer, was initially intended to be R-rated, but then New Line Cinema decide to rework it for a broader audience (as is often the case with big budget films). The problem is that the tone just does not work now, as it still has elements of that initial R-rated film mashed together with more kid-friendly stuff. In some moments the film is silly with goofy characters and jokes (like Roderick’s – the film’s villain – sidekick Wicke or the main giant General Fallon having a second head that is only there for comical effect, as it speaks and acts in a goofy manner), while in other moments the film has characters being eaten, murdered, and engaged in violent situations – often these moments happen within the same scene. In an attempt to appeal to everyone, the film (generally speaking) appeals to no one.

However, getting back to my un-bashful love of adventure fantasy, there is still a lot to like in the film. And, Singer keeps the film moving forward with decent pacing. Singer also develops the lead characters well. Jack and Isabelle are easy to root for, because their story is relatable to the audience, or at least very familiar in its narrative language. The supporting characters fall mostly into genre archetypes, but that is fine for this sort of light entertainment. Singer’s action is also entertaining (just, probably not suitable for kids). Overall, I did enjoy the film – but its issues do limit it considerably.

In addition to its uneven tone, the film’s narrative structure felt a bit strange in terms of the villain’s arc. Roderick is presented as the film’s main antagonist in the first act. Isabelle is being forced to marry him, even though she does not love him (which is one of the reasons she runs away, if not the main one). And, he is presented as an overall bad guy (in sort of a kid’s movie way – he just looks like a bad guy). His plan is to use the magic beans and a magic crown to not only bring the giants down from their kingdom, but also rule over them – using them to take over the world. He is clearly the character to root against. Yet, once the narrative gets up to the world of the giants, the main giant General Fallon is presented as the actual main antagonist and Roderick is merely only a catalyst to introduce the giants. But if that was the case, Roderick should have done his business in the first act so the audience could invest sooner in the struggle between Jack and Fallon. As it is, this antagonistic relationship does not really come about until about halfway through the film (and by then, the audience does not really care anymore).

The film also feels inauthentic in the way it treats Jack’s relationship with Isabelle. It goes out of its way to express that a princess can never marry a commoner (which Jack is), yet none of the characters frown upon the blatant budding of a relationship between them – even her father the King. Sure, he is grateful that he rescued her, but his seeming indifference to the complete collapsing of the governing social convention regarding his daughter feels off. Though, at this point, the narrative is so rushed that there is not really time to address barriers to Jack and Isabelle’s relationship.

The narrative is paced well enough, as Singer again keeps things moving forward and the film never feels like it is dragging. But, the structure of the story is the films weakest attribute. It has an overly long first act and rushed second and third acts. The characters and their relationships are not used to their full dramatic potential as well. This ultimately leaves the film unfulfilling both narratively and from a character perspective. Plus, the tacky add-on that ends the film is also laughable.

Jack the Giant Slayer is fun and entertaining, especially for fans of adventure fantasy films. However, it is encumbered by a multitude of narrative issues, holding it back from being among the genre’s better films.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Bryan Singer has now made eight feature films – some loved like The Usual Suspects and X2 (though, I would argue both are vastly overrated), but most disappointing. He continually makes films that have great potential and are indeed great in moments, but never come together as wholes. His next project is X-Men: Days of Future Past. As someone that really liked X-Men: First Class, I hope he finally reaches his potential (assuming it is there at all).

Singer works again with his frequent collaborators composer (and editor) John Ottman and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel on Jack the Giant Slayer. Ottman delivers a good score that fits the adventure fantasy genre well, while Sigel’s photography is also strong. However, it is production designer Gavin Bocquet’s sets that really bring the world together. The overall look of the film is very much rooted in the classic genre pieces of the past. However, the animation (the film uses motion capture to create the giants) feels a bit out of place at times – but not enough to hurt the overall experience.

The cast is also a strong component of the film – maybe even the best part as the performances are good, and feel aligned with the genre (despite the uneven tone). Warwick Davis, Ewen Bremner (who is pretty funny), and Eddie Marsan are great in small supporting roles. Bill Nighy, as he always seems to, elevates General Fallon with his measured delivery in his voice-only role.  Ewan McGregor is a lot of fun as Elmont – the best of the King’s guard. He somewhat steals the film with his enthusiastic energy. Newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson is also a bright spot. She certainly has screen presence as Isabelle. It might have been more interesting to just see her adventure sans Jack. Nicholas Hoult is good in the film, but the character does not play to his strengths as an actor – playing characters with charisma, wit, some narcissism, and mischievousness to them. Here, Jack is too simple and good (and thus not that interesting).

Summary & score: Jack the Giant Slayer has a lot of grave narrative problem, yet still manages to be fun and entertaining (but only superficially). 6/10


  1. It’s a fun movie and if that’s what you go in expecting, then you’re going to be happy. At least that’s what I went in feeling like. Good review Geoff.

  2. I love Wicke I think he is sooooo cute. I loved his hair his eyes and his accent. I was sad when he got eaten by the giant, I almost cried. POOR WICKEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!