Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Director Report Card: Bryan Singer (2013)

8. Jack the Giant Slayer

Cinema is a business, least we forget. Hollywood follows were the money is. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” despite not being a particularly good film, made a lot of money. And in today’s risk averse studio system, a bigger budget film requires a well-known property. This is why comic books, popular novel series, video games, cartoons, and old TV shows are endlessly adapted. Burton’s “Wonderland” proved that the public thirsted for big budget action movie versions of classic fairy tales. The studios love this for two reasons. Those stories are well known, world reknown, and instantly recognizable to most folks. Probably more important, they’re also all in the public domain, preventing any sort of messy, and expensive, rights arguments. In this on-going wave of fairy tale inspired blockbusters, there are going to be winners and losers. “Oz” was a winner. “Snow White and the Huntsman” was a winner. “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” was kind of a winner. “Malecifent” will probably be a winner. But Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer?” A loser. Are the box office receipts representive of the film’s quality?

Unrelated to the (almost) identically titled 1962 (almost) classic, the film instead drawls directly from the story as everyone knows it. Jack is a poor farm boy, sent into town to sell his family’s cow… I mean, horse. Instead, he comes home with a handful of supposedly magic beans. Irate, his uncle tosses the beans under the floorboards. When a thunder storm comes later that night, the beans grow into a giant beanstalk. The stalk leads to a world above the clouds inhabit by a race of man-eating giants. Aside from a cameo from a singing harp, the film branches off into its own stories. A princess resists her arranged wedding to a nobleman, a king struggles about what to do with her, while the nobleman has plots of his own. There’s even political power-plays and hand-wrangling among the giants. A magical crown that can control the giant race provides the almost obligatory MacGuffin. Entering into this fray is Jack the farm boy, who proves himself a hero.

“Jack the Giant Slayer’s” best assets is its sense of old fashion adventure and fun. Nicholas Hoult plays Jack as a classical hero. Unlike so many modern day adventure protagonists, he’s not wracked with guilt or gritty-reboot-prone personality problems. Instead, he longs for adventure, like Luke Skywalker before him. While in town, he inadvertently rescues the princess, impressing her. Why? Because he’s a nice guy, a natural hero, someone who believes in protecting fair maidens and those less fortunate. He proves an adapt giant slayer because of a natural guile. His quick-thinking and ability to take advantage of given circumstances makes him a rather natural hero. This isn’t complex writing. This is also a fairy tale. Hoult has enough charm in his eyes to make Jack an entertaining hero to watch.

Another surprising element is how likable the film’s central romance proves to be. Eleanor Tomlinson plays Princess Isabelle. She too longs for adventure and resents her privileged upbringing. In Jack, she finds something of a kindred spirit. There’s a wonderful scene where the two meet on equal ground, the princess in disguise. Normally, you’d expect a character to be taken in by the ruse. Instead, Jack sees right through it, the discussion playing like a cute, “will they, won’t they.” The movie takes a similarly straight-forward path with the romance throughout. Law prevents a princess from marrying a commoner but Isabelle doesn’t bother with that. Tomlinson is believably strong in the role and has great chemistry with Hoult.

Most modern fantasy films are focused on wizards, magic, elves, that kind of shit. “Jack the Giant Slayer” naturally focuses on giants, something you don’t see too frequently on-screen. The giants of the film are fantastically realized. They are bumpy, ugly, deformed creatures. Their limps are gangly and their bodies are asymmetrical. With callus on their eyes and elongated, exaggerated face, they are memorable creations. My favorite was probably the chief, who bares a passing resemblance to Film Thoughts favorite Rondo Hatton. However, main villain General Fallon is certainly a striking presence. He has a face like a 1940s cowboy actor and an ugly, mumbling, vestigial smaller head sticking out of his shoulder. Moreover, the giant’s world have a lived-in quality. Their armor has ugly, sneering face molded on to them. Their castles are dusty, worn, and broken. Several shots of their kingdom in the sky are striking, huge clouds billowing over the steep cliffs. The beanstalks are cool too, intricate and overwhelmingly huge.

From an action perspective, “Jack the Giant Slayer” is a bit more uneven. The stand-out is a fall from a toppling beanstalk. Jack and the princess swing from vines as the beanstalk crashes to the ground. The fall makes great use of 3D effects and has the two coming very close to a perilous end. The climatic battle between Jack and the evil two-headed giant builds up nicely. Seeing such a large figure in an in-closed environment proves a memorable image. The build-up, the heroes hiding from the approaching monster, builds some decent suspense. The pay-off, the way the villain is dispatched, is especially satisfying and makes for a great visual.

However, a bit too much of “Jack” falls into typical CGI-overload. A flaming tree tossed over a castle wall is impressive the first time. However, twenty flaming trees gets a bit old. The giant siege on the walled city probably should have been a more exciting event. Instead, it plays out like warmed over “Lord of the Rings” or any other big budgeted, CGI-filled spectacle. Shifting the focus away from Jack leaves the audience without a reason to be interested. Sadly, a bit too much of the film’s latter section is made up of this kind of action.

The film’s exposition-heavy opening sequence, in which the background legend, left me with a similar “been there, done that” feeling. Even the way it uses CGI wooden puppets in places of people reminded me of better films, like "Hellboy II.” The entire legend of the magical crown is nothing other then an awkward plot device. What makes these moments really clever are the way it cuts back and forth between Jack and the Princess. One lives in a modest hut, the other a castle, both approaching the story with a different attitude. Yet the two youths still have plenty in common. Those character moments are ultimately what elevates “Jack the Giant Slayer” above the modern studio fantasy pack. Add in a game supporting cast including great actors doing their thing, like Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, John Kassair, Ian McShane, and an unusually involved Bill Nighy, and you have a film that should have been a huge hit. Honestly, “Jack’s” poor box office performance has more to do with the studio’s lack of confidence, if you ask me. No new franchise for Bryan Singer, who slinked off back to the greener pastures of mutants and sentinels. Oh well. [Grade: B]

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