starring: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane
screenplay: Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney
directed by: Bryan Singer
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language
As I watched the opening scenes of Jack the Giant Slayer, now getting a rather unceremonious theatrical release nine months after being bumped from its original summer 2012 blockbuster slot, I was puzzled by what I was seeing. Two medieval children, Jack and Isabelle, are each conveniently being told origin stories about giants in their respective homes; Jack is in a humble shack, Isabelle is in a palace. The parents beam in that way characters always do when you know they won’t live to see the present-day narrative, and the overall tone is one of insipid sentimentality. What the hell is happening? I wondered. And as the film continued, it slowly dawned on me why it felt so wrong: while one would have reasonably expected it to be a high-powered action fantasy, Jack the Giant Slayer has actually been turned into a family film.
It was not always intended as such, as corroborated by a recent Hollywood Reporter story about the film’s troubled history. But when director Bryan Singer’s initial vision was rejected as “too fanboy and not enough family,” it was retooled to be more family-friendly; right off the bat, the original title was Jack the Giant Killer, but that was deemed too harsh-sounding. This is basically the creative directive from hell, and unsurprisingly, Jack the Giant Slayer has not survived the translation into the kid zone particularly well. It has now been a full decade since Singer’s last objectively successful film, X2, so it’s not shocking that he’s decided to return to the franchise and helm next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
While the bedtime story prologue suggests that Jack and Isabellle have parallel paths and the characters will have equal weight, this is sadly not the case. We soon jump ahead 15 years, with Jack (Nicholas Hoult) as an adventurous young peasant and Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) as the cooped-up princess eager to get out and experience life (cue “Common People”). Predictably, Isabelle is being forced to marry the villain of the piece, Roderick (Stanley Tucci), by her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane). But when she ventures into town incognito and is harassed by a rowdy gang of lads, Jack comes to her rescue. Through a contrived set of circumstances, she later ends up at his home – just before a giant beanstalk erupts from the ground beneath her and rockets the house (with Isabelle in it) up into the heavens.
Jack is left behind to explain this to Elmont (Ewan McGregor), one of the royal guardians tasked with keeping the princess safe. And so, like you do, Jack joins Elmont, Roderick, and an anonymous gang of others as they set off climbing the beanstalk to retrieve Isabelle. Also, there are giants? The film attempts creating some kind of mythology about the ancient battle between giants and mankind, and there’s some kind of special crown that gives its possessor all the power and subjugates the opposition, and there are magic beans, but there’s some kind of weird Da Vinci Code thing where a monk tries to steal them because Roderick is using them to become God? I don’t know. So maybe I’m actually not that upset about the fanboy element getting played down, because I am exhausted from trying to think this through.
As I said, the film’s prologue leads you to believe that Jack and Isabelle will be equals in the story, but that is misleading: Jack is our hero, and Isabelle is merely our damsel in distress. Nothing about the film is in any way surprising, although at least in its first half it maintains a certain level of lighthearted breeziness and humor. But it runs almost completely out of steam near its halfway mark, receiving very little assistance in the excitement department from its ridiculously cartoonish-looking giants. This is supposedly the reason the film was delayed, so that Singer and Co. could continue refining the special effects; the film’s budget has been reported as upward of $300 million. And holy shit, what a waste! This kind of extravagantly pointless spending is why the terrorists hate us, guys. Stop blaming reality shows.
The problem with the giants reflects the film’s overall identity crisis: are they supposed to be funny or scary? We get cues in each direction; one minute they’re farting and staggering around like Kristen Stewart at the Oscars, and the next they are literally biting people’s heads off. Similarly, the first half of Giant Slayer plays as a kid-oriented family adventure flick, while the second half takes on a considerably darker and more adult tone. The result is unlikely to please anyone; it is too dopey and neutered for adult audiences, but the scarier person-eating elements in the second half will likely be quite frightening to children.
At the very least, we have the charming and funny Nicholas Hoult as our lead, and I’m generally in favor of any excuse to contemplate his eyes, cheekbones, and jawline. This is an actor who will always be prettier and more fine-featured than his love interest. Tucci and McShane have a spirited round of playing dress-up and goofing off, but McGregor seems as unclear why he’s there as the audience does with his superfluous character.
Jack the Giant Slayer feels both light-hearted and labored, and can’t quite pull off its breeziness due to its generally overworked feeling. The studio would have been better-advised to let Singer make the movie he wanted to make rather than focus-testing it into the ineffective and very uneven behemoth it’s become. It has moments of charm and levity, but is ultimately neither fun nor exciting enough to recommend.
Jack the Giant Slayer opens nationwide on Friday, March 1.