Moment of truth: I’ve never been the biggest Bryan Singer fan. Sorry X-Men enthusiasts, but not even the few moments of greatness in X2 can save what I consider to be a messy, character jammed superhero orgy. This description seems to sum up my biggest problem with Singer – he focuses on too many characters, making each one appealing but not necessarily desirable or memorable. Other Singer productions such as The Usual Suspects and Superman Returns suffer from similar issues, with characters being personalities and plot-movers when they should be our emotional connection to the events at hand, no matter how fantastical and unreal. It’s for this reason that Jack The Giant Slayer could’ve been a Singer game-changer – it’s a fairytale and, therefore, should have personality-defined characters that stay in their arch-types and move the story along, and yet Singer drops the ball, unable to figure out if he wants to make a family friendly romp or a PG-13 revisionist adventure.
Following up his turn as “R” in the zombie rom-com Warm Bodies, one of only a few films that can be called a 2013 hit, Nicholas Hoult hopes to strike gold again as Jack, a down-on-his-luck farmer who pines for the beautiful princess (Eleanor Tomlinson, a spirited newcomer), loses his Uncle’s horse, and gains magical beans in return. Yes, yes, the story of Jack and the Beanstalk – the one you heard countless times growing and, in my case, watched over and over again thanks to the classic Disney version with Mickey Mouse – plays as expected here, though the giants that live up in the sky are filthy, carnivorous, revenge-seeking beasts, and when the beans create huge stalks connecting our world to theirs, a battle for power commences that threatens to destroy the kingdom.
A revisionist Jack and the Beanstalk may not be what audiences want, but the prospect of seeing man-eating giants and medieval warriors going at it in battle sounds extremely promising and worthy of a dark spin a la Snow White and the Huntsman. And yet, this dark version of the tale that Singer seems to want to make isn’t on screen at all; instead, we’re left with a PG-13 adventure film that would rather be a PG-rated family comedy. There are some moments of exhilaration – mainly when the beanstalk is cut down while Jack and the princess are climbing down and when hoards of giants begin chasing after the soldiers – but a majority of the movie is fleshed out with comical relief characters played by Ian McShane, Ewan McGregor, and Stanley Tucci, who plays the villainous Lord Roderick while looking like a bumbling Tim Burton. Any time the movie shows its darker roots, such as in an ingenious set piece that occurs when a giant starts to prep the princess and McGregor’s character for a meal, it immediately scales back for a slapstick joke or a juvenile pun that takes away all the menace.
The film’s opening, which tells the story of the giants and how they came to hate the human race, is perhaps the biggest disaster. In a movie where you’re trying to create tension and fear of the giants (which look more or less like those seen recently in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit) as a way to equate the viewer with naïve Jack, it probably isn’t the best idea to visualize them as horribly rendered cartoon figures. I know the sequence is a story-within-a-story, and I appreciate Singer for trying to play with style a la Tarantino, but to show the giants by using hokey, early computer software animation takes out all the fear in them. There’s no dread or horror permeating any frame of this movie and the film suffers because of it.
Hoult is a handsome young face and has some swoon worthy exchanges with the beautiful Tomlinson, but he can’t really leave a mark because he’s constantly forced to play PG-13 and PG simultaneously. Just when you want to praise Jack for mustering up the courage to kill a Giant, the script has him act like a bubbling, flirtatious fool for the sake of immature comedy, turning our admiration of him into one big eye roll. I’ve heard rumors that Warner Bros. forced Singer to make the film more family friendly so they could have a better chance at recouping the movie’s giant $200 million budget (plus $100 million more for marketing), and if that’s the case than poor Mr. Singer, for with a budget that gargantuan, a release date during the first weekend of March, and a story structure problem that tries to be both dark and family friendly, it looks like Slayer is the next John Carter, and that ain’t good at all. Kids will probably eat it up, especially with all the cartoonish CGI, but parents might be in the need for some magic beans themselves to get them out of the theater.
Review by Zack Sharf