I was baffled when I first heard Jack the Giant Slayer was in production. Sure, there's a market for revamped fairy tales, but this one struck me as tonally confused: Would the re-imagining of the classic tale be for kids, or would it take a darker angle?
Now that I've seen director Bryan Singer's fantasy adventure, I'm still as confused as before. It's the traditional story without a single breath of new life, as straightforward as turning the pages of a children's book -- except, of course, that every frame is given the drowned-in-CG 3D treatment.
I suppose the film's lack of ingenuity works in its favor as well. It manages to land a few bean sprouts short of eliciting anger because it doesn’t purport to be anything more than it is, a contrived, one-dimensional hero story. It's big and loud and full of one-liners that fall flat. You don't particularly care about any of the characters, everyone makes predictable decisions, no central figure is ever in true peril, and it pushes its PG-13 rating by giving minor players some memorably gruesome ends. But for all its painstaking visual flair, the final result is apathy. Jack the Giant Slayer is merely … fee-fi-ho-hum.
We're introduced conversely, within intercut sequences, to young Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and young princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) as their father and mother read to them the beloved beanstalk fable. The refresher course goes something like this: A bunch of monks made magic beans with dark arts in order to grow stalks that would bring them to the realm of giants above our world. That backfired, being that the giants were evil, and the monks were forced to forge a crown out of a giant's heart, which when worn by their human king, forced automatic servitude from the beasts. The giants were banished back to their realm, the stalks cut, and when the king died, he had the crown buried with him. In Jack and Isabelle's world, this tale is the stuff of legend. However, these two are clearly destined to cross paths, and, as we fast-forward 10 years, the foreshadowing comes to fruition.
Jack, now a poor orphaned farm boy, happens across Isabelle, an antsy, adventure-seeking princess keen on ducking out of the palace and hanging with the townsfolk, at a local carnival. Two two become embroiled in an evil scheme on the part of Isabelle's betrothed, her father King Brahmwell's (Ian McShane) adviser Roderick (Stanley Tucci), which leads them to unsuspectingly unspool the stalks and unlock a connection between two worlds they'd previously considered nothing but fodder for bedtime stories.
The true crime of Jack the Giant Slayer is that its incredible cast is given nothing but caricatures to inhabit. Hoult has already proved with A Single Man, X-Men: First Class and Warm Bodies that he's no longer the little kid in About a Boy, and he certainly cuts a dashing figure as Jack. But beyond the tried-and-true hero archetype, he's not given much else for his journey. He and Tomlinson (something of a young Cate Blanchett, perfectly fresh and beautiful for the role) have serviceable chemistry, but even she’s not permitted to break beyond the bonds of bored royal seeking a grand adventure.
The harshest dig, however, is McShane, an astounding actor who’s relegated to playing a shell of a man. His character is the best example of how tonally confused the film is: We're introduced to King Brahmwell as he's having his portrait painted in all his royal robes and heightened splendor. As he argues with his daughter, he departs his robes, which turn out to be stiff, oversized armor on an elevated platform, revealing him to be a much slighter man (and of course, the audience laughs at him). His idiocy continues when he first confronts a giant beanstalk and doesn't even question what the unearthly thing is and how it happened to appear. Over and over, he proves to be an utterly ineffective leader who simply parades in a crown barking orders, and we're expected to both laugh at him and revere him.
The fantastic Ewan McGregor, as Brahmwell's good-natured knight Elmont, is also woefully underdeveloped. Given pithy dialogue and ridiculous one-liners (not to mention a nonexistent character arc), he's relegated to being Exposition Guy. He does have really, really good (albeit historically inaccurate) hair, though. Tucci, too, is sigh-inducing as the baddie, making ridiculous decisions contrived to give the protagonists a chance to jump in.
And these issues aren't just relegated to the human characters -- the giants are even less developed. We're never given any background on them (beyond the opening story), and only know they're seeking revenge for past ills, and their bloodlust lies in the lineage of their original captor; they're not painted as much beyond farting, burping, nose-picking, human-eating brutes. The lead giant is as unevenly conceived as King Brahmwell: He's supposed to be scary, but the small, gobbledygook-spewing miniature second head he bears on his shoulder consistently undercuts his villainy. It would've been refreshing for Singer to concentrate as much on the intricacies of the giant kingdom and its inhabitants as he did on the pixilation of their massive eyeballs.
Visually, Singer does get one thing right: He understands how to use 3D. The immersion factor is impressive, as are the technicalities of the action sequences. For the most part, the CGI of the giants isn't quite convincing, though. I couldn't get beyond issues of scale at times: They were either huge (when standing next to a human) or dwarfed (when standing outside a human's castle walls) depending on what the script’s action required of them. Aside from a couple cool shots (the first close-up we're given of a giant -- eyeball, nose hairs, greasy skin, massive pores and all -- is pretty awe-inspiring), their rendering isn't particularly exciting.
Jack the Giant Slayer could've breathed new life into an old fairy tale, but instead suffers from lack of imagination and ingenuity -- failing to make use of its stellar cast, pummeling the audience with computer-generated images and contrived characters, and ultimately underwhelming with its paint-by-numbers plot.
Jack the Giant Slayer opens today.