Jack The Giant Slayer is perhaps the most simplistic, nuance-free big-screen picture you’ll see this year. The trailers pretty much tell the tale from start to finish, and there’s little in between that deviates from its basic premise. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a big-dreaming farmboy who comes into the possession of a handful of magic beans. He has a chance encounter with Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), the free-spirited daughter of the gruff-but-loving King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), when one rainy night she turns up at his door when she sneaks out of the castle seeking adventure. A series of mishaps cause the beans to spill, so to speak, and a massive beanstalk takes to the skies, bringing Jack’s house — and Isabelle trapped inside it — shooting into the air-bound land of the menacing, warlike race of giants. The giants, bound to their land for generations by one of Isabelle’s ancestors, look to seize the opportunity to return below and extract their vengeance, just as Jack and a brave band of warriors (including Ewan McGregor and Eddie Marsan) travel upwards to rescue Isabelle. There is, of course, a traitor in their midst — the king’s adviser Roderick (Stanley Tucci) seeks to use dark magics to enslave the giants and overthrow the king. Hijinks, intrigue, and a whole lot of smashing ensues.
The story is very loosely based on the original folktales of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer,” and is suitably young adult-oriented. It’s a film that tries quite hard to bridge the middle ground between amusing for adults and engaging for the little ones, and it lands somewhat awkwardly as a result. It’s funny, though not uproariously so, and the lion’s share of humor comes from the two best performances — Ewan McGregor as the impossibly bold-and-brave captain Elmont (sporting a simply magnificently silly head of hair) and Tucci as the wickedly, weaselly Roderick. Tucci certainly is having a good time, channeling his best Alan-Rickman-as-Sheriff-George as he merrily chomps his way through the film. The two leads, Hoult and Tomlinson, are charming enough, though that having seen Hoult recently star in the excellent Warm Bodies, it’s clear he can do better. But it’s a good-natured, winsome script (written by Darren Lemke, then re-written by Mark Bomback, and then punched up by director Bryan Singer’s longtime collaborator Christopher McQuarrie) that asks little of its actors other than to show some natural charisma and a touch of humor, of which they’re all gamely capable.
Of course, the big draw for many won’t be the actors so much as it will be the giants and the way they stomp and smash their way through this bucolic fantasy setting. The cinematography of the film, CGI-aided as it may be, is quite lovely to look at and much more expansive and sprawling than much of Singer’s previous work. The giants themselves will likely be a point of contention. They live in that unusual world, far from the uncanny valley, of CGI/motion-captured creations that don’t look the least bit real, yet can still be utilized effectively. As such, they alternate between being utterly cartoonish and startlingly lifelike, creating an occasionally off-putting sense of imbalance. The lead giant, Fallon, played with atypical grimness by Bill Nighy, is depicted by an almost video game-ish animation, full of harsh edges and hard stares… except for the oft-hilarious, mentally defective second head that sprouts from his shoulder. At the same time, Fallon has a scheming usurper in his ranks named Fumm (natch, and yes there is also a Fee, Fye and Foe) played by Ben Daniels who, with bulbous nose and springy shock of hair, who is basically a troll doll writ gigantic. Yet when taken as a whole, the giants work in their own unusual way — they’re not believably realistic in the conventional sense, but at the same time it’s a fairy tale in every sense of the word, and so it’s easy to forgive their obvious artificiality.
Oh, and by all means don’t bother with the 3D version — it’s barely even noticeable.
Tonally, the film is similarly all over the place — it wants to be light and breezy, yet there’s a surprising amount of killing that takes place, although never graphically or gratuitously depicted. As a result, it’s hard to say just what age group it’s appropriate for — it’s quite funny at times and sweetly romantic in a strictly PG fashion, yet there’s also a good number of folk that get swatted by humongous hands and chomped on by massive maws. Ironically, for a film called Jack The Giant Slayer, surprisingly few giants are slain. The film is breathlessly paced, never really letting off the gas right up to the climax, a full-blown seige of Brahmwell’s castle. That scene is a harrowing and enjoyably tense affair that certainly has a respectable amount of thrills to it, yet the aftermath is curiously tepid, making it all feel a little disproportionate. Also muddying the film’s waters is what feels like an excess of villainy - between Roderick, Fallon and Fumm, it feels like a film overcrowded by ideas of who, exactly, should be the bad guy. What keeps it from falling apart is that at its root, it’s a genuine tale of adventure and derring-do, something that we don’t often find capably done anymore.
What does this add up to? A mostly enjoyable, though oft-inconsistent film that can’t quite settle into a niche comfortably. The downside to this is that it’s destined to fill everyone’s glass halfway, without ever really creating a real sense of cinematic fulfillment. Jack The Giant Slayer was certainly fun, and it’s definitely a welcome change from some of the unnecessarily darker, grungier fairy tale adaptations, but it’s also a bit too schizophrenic for its own good. All of that said, it has a healthy sense of adventure and wonderment, and perhaps, despite all of its strange dichotomies, that’s something that’s in short enough order these days to make it worthwhile.