Jack the Giant Slayer (review)

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Jack the Giant Slayer yellow light Ewan McGregor Eleanor Tomlinson Nicholas Hoult

I’m “biast” (pro): the cast and director Bryan Singer gave me some hope

I’m “biast” (con): getting tired of “reimagined” fairy tales

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Monks doing dark magic? Like, apparently proper Christian monks? Does Jack the Giant Slayer really open with a flashbacky introduction about how Christian monks — who appear to worship the Christian God and believe in Heaven as a real place — used a horrifically and literally visceral sorcery to create an enchanted crown that could be used to control and rule actual giants who live in the space between Heaven and Earth?

That’s some pretty blasphemous stuff, if you believe in that sort of thing, and it’s pretty edgy and even approaching dangerous for a big-budget fantasy movie. (Note that Harry Potter, for instance, exists in a world that is as secular as its British setting and makes no mention at all of any religious or churchy stuff… and fundamentalists still get upset about it.) And that, alas, is the extent of the risks that Jack the Giant Slayer takes. If I didn’t know better about how films are made, I’d wonder if someone took a look at that opening sequence, realized how incendiary it could potentially be, and chickened out for the rest of the flick, ensured that everything that followed would be as ironed flat as possible, lest anyone be offended or horrified or just plain moved in any way whatsoever.

It could almost be funny, how Jack keeps trying to fly off into could-be fascinating directions and then gets yanked back into a mushy mediocrity. That opening hints at a Lord of the Rings style epicness — we’re clearly meant to see that magic crown as akin to the One Ring — but there’s never enough heft for that. (Which is ironic, given the physical size of the giants.) There’s no sweep to the kingdom in which farmboy Jack (Nicholas Hoult: Warm Bodies, X-Men: First Class) lives, and depressingly little sense of an authentic, living world — the entirety of this realm appears to consist of one walled city with a castle at its center… and the lone farm outside the walls on which Jack and his uncle live. (Oddly, the uncle disappears and is completely forgotten about early on.) Ewan McGregor (The Impossible, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and Stanley Tucci (Gambit, The Hunger Games) as, respectively, the king’s most trusted soldier, Elmont, and advisor, Roderick, keep edging into snarky Princess Bride territory — I’d love to see the movie they thought they were in; they’re the best reasons to see this — while everyone else is so tediously solemn. As the king, Ian McShane (Snow White and the Huntsman, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), poor sod, appears to believe he landed a guest spot on Game of Thrones, which is at odds with most of the rest of the film… though not the brief moments of very grim and disturbing horror: the giants really do like to eat people. But director Bryan Singer (Valkyrie, Superman Returns) cuts those short, too, and tosses in some kiddie-friendly giant farts and boogers as if to prove that he really and truly wants this to be a movie that will fail to fully satisfy all audiences.

Singer has reteamed with this frequent screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, The Tourist) (cowriting with Darren Lemke [Shrek Forever After] and Dan Studney), and it would seem that they have no interest in making a movie as fresh as their The Usual Suspects again. Because they’ve resorted to the hoariest — and most tiresome — trope to kickstart their plot: a damsel in distress. It’s almost cruel how they do this, too: they posit a princess, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson: Alice in Wonderland, The Illusionist), who’s tired of life in the castle… and “reward” her for setting off on her own little adventure by getting her caught up in the magic beanstalk that climbs toward the realm of the giants in the sky, and then flung in a cage by the giants to await rescue.

Jack had dreamed of adventure, too. And of course he actually gets it, when he accompanies Elmont and Roderick up the stalk to confront the giants. We in the audience are treated about as well as Isabelle, adventure and excitement dangled before us, only to be pulled back and held just beyond our reach.

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