Nothing I say or do is going to save Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer, but it really is a rather good movie. It’s not a great movie, but it is a good, entertaining one. More than that cannot reasonably be expected for a new — but not really revisionist — take on “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Oh, sure, it’s been tarted up and added to and presents itself as the real story (cleverly so at the very end while voice-overs thrash out various versions), but its essentials remain intact. (And it’s mostly free of post-modern snark.) Much has been made — in print — of nose-picking, belching, flatulent giants, but there’s really very little of this in the film itself. And while there is humor — not to mention a seriously anachronistic coiffure on Ewan McGregor — it doesn’t lean on pop culture references. That, of course, may account for its disastrously tepid box office showing, though I think it’s more likely due to an ill-focused ad campaign combined with a general weariness about new takes on fairy tales. And this doesn’t take into account that box office prognosticators may well be creating self-fulfilling prophecies by publicizing that movies aren’t “tracking well” before they come out.
Singer’s film opens cleverly, presenting the story being told (complete with storybook animation) — separately to both young Jack (Michael Self ) and young Princess Isabelle (Sydney Rawson) in a series of cross-cuts that connect the two in our minds years before they will actually meet and experience something like the adventure they’re hearing. (The film uses action that builds on previous action very nicely.) Soon, however, we’re in the film’s present with Jack (now Nicholas Hoult) being charged by his not-exactly-loving uncle (Brit character actor Christopher Fairbank) to sell the family horse (yes, I know, it’s usually Jack’s mother and a cow), which allows him not only to set the whole magic beans biz in motion, but to “meet cute” with Isabelle (now Eleanor Tomlinson). Isabelle has become a headstrong young lady prone to mingling incognito with commoners, which is understandably preferable to hanging around the palace with her transparently villainous betrothed, Roderick (Stanley Tucci with a wig and goatee that make him look distractingly like Tim Burton, which may be unintentional). This all leads to the magic beans, Jack’s disgrace (he actually doesn’t trade the horse), a second meeting with Isabelle and the inevitable beanstalk that propels Jack’s house — with Isabelle — into the clouds. Soon Jack, the erstwhile Sir Elmont (Ewan McGregor stealing the show whenever he’s onscreen), Roderick and company are climbing to the rescue — or to duplicitous ends in Roderick’s case. You can pretty much take it from there.
It would be fair to say that nothing all that surprising happens — apart from the increase in characters and a whole land of giants (the bedtime story prepared us for this last) — but there are nice touches throughout and no shortage of style. Plus, it’s always nice when high billing is no guarantee that characters won’t become giant luncheon, and it only adds to the tension. The CGI giants are much more impressive in the film than they ever were in the trailers, though having Bill Nighy play one half of the two-headed lead giant (the other head being played by the crypt-keeper himself, John Kassir) is really a waste of Nighy’s talent. Nicholas Hoult makes a good Jack, even if he’s outdone whenever McGregor’s onscreen.
The biggest drawback is in the writing for Isabelle since the film presents her as wanting to be more than a damsel in distress and then doesn’t allow her room to be much more than that. But that’s a minor point. I figure a movie like this is really working if I have even a moment’s concern over the fate of a character — and that happened here. The spectacle is pretty spectacular, the acting is solid, the writing generally witty, the direction is stylish and the whole movie is entertaining. That’s quite enough — and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t find an audience. Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7