Theatrical Review: Jack the Giant Slayer

Long ago, in the kingdom known as Cloister, a young peasant boy named Jack and the young princess Isabelle are simultaneously being told the story of a land of fierce and deformed giants that’s suspended in the sky, the giant beanstalk that connects the two and the ferocious appetite that the giants have for the taste of human flesh. To the children, it’s just a simple bedtime story but as they grow older, they soon discover that there’s truth to this tale.

Jack, now in his late teens, lives with his uncle, after his father has passed away. Times are tough for the two and the uncle charges Jack with the task of selling their horse and cart for enough money to repair their home. Isabelle has grown to want to have big adventures before she has to live a life of responsibility and eventual marriage to the suspicious Roderick who has his own devious plans for the kingdom. Soon the paths of both Jack and Isabelle cross, and that’s when they discover that the bedtime story of their childhood was indeed very true.

That’s a simplified premise to Jack the Giant Slayer the latest movie from director Bryan Singer, who’s best known for films like The Usual Suspects, the first two X-Men movies, Superman Returns and Valkyrie. I’m certainly a fan of Singer’s and was pretty keen to see what he’d do with this. We’ve seen a few classic fairy tales get a big-screen update, two of those, Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman I can’t say I was very interested in seeing. The third, Hansel & Gretel; Witch Hunters was different for me and I enjoyed the movie very much. The biggest selling point for Jack the Giant Slayer was indeed the fact that Bryan Singer was directing it, and I gotta say, I had a lot of fun with this.

Now to be honest, there really isn’t a lot of huge depth to this story or to it’s characters. In fact, the characters are very two-dimensional, but in the context of the style of the film, I really don’t mind that. And the style of the film is pure broad spectacle and absurd action with the characters being the simplest strokes of good and evil. That in itself will probably be a huge turn-off for some, but for myself I was glad to see this “tall tale” approach taken to the classic story. Now of course, by what I described with the premise above, there’s liberties being taken here, but thanks to a clever little bit of business at the end of the film, that’s all put in some nice context to the nature of tall tales and how they change over the course of generations.

The movie is absolutely gorgeous and I’d even go so far as to say that I think it’s Singer’s best-looking film to date. The visual effects are spectacular and I really like the look of the giants. The look of the giants here, at least to me, share a commonality with the look of the trolls in the movie Troll Hunter in that they all look like they’re more designed to resemble the look of classic storybook illustrations instead of being overdone in a more realistic way. I chose to see the movie in 3D and I’m glad I did, Singer’s got a good understanding of what he wants to accomplish with it and he gets a world that’s very immersive as a result. Sure, it also has a smattering of “in-your-face” 3D effects, but immersion is the bigger result.

I was very impressed with the sheer absurdity of various situations and action in the film. There’s a bit midway through where one of the giants is preparing to eat a defender of the princess (Elmont played by Ewan McGregor) and he literally wraps him up in dough and puts him next to two pigs treated the same way, “pigs in a blanket” indeed. It was shown in the trailers, and I thought it was clever there, but seeing it in context was of course even more fun. Late in the movie, the giants of course start to attack Cloister and in the course of their attack they start to fling flaming trees into the village. This sort of action strikes me as the type of thing that you might see in a Monty Python film or more specifically a Terry Gilliam film, and while it makes sense that the giants do this, there’s also something that’s just very broad about it that I find totally appealing.

As I said, the characters are very two-dimensional, but here I don’t take that as a slight in the least. I think it serves Singer’s purpose and further, I think he’s cast it quite well. Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson play Jack and Isabelle respectively. I’m not really that familiar with Tomlinson, but Hoult gave a memorable performance as Hank McCoy, the X-Man known as The Beast, in X-Men: First Class. I think the two are extremely likable and have nice chemistry with each other. There’s a few aspects to Hoult’s Jack that make me think of Nigel Terry’s young King Arthur from the movie Excalibur and I think this kid will be one of those to watch out for in the future, to be sure. As mentioned above, Ewan McGregor plays Elmont, one of the kingdom’s elite warriors, and I think McGregor’s having a ball here, sort of giving us a combination of what you might get if Eddie Izzard played Obi-Wan Kenobi. Stanley Tucci plays Roderick and he’s very appropriately cast for the part, Roderick is full of smarm and that’s certainly been a big part of a lot of the character roles that Tucci’s played in the past. Ian McShane plays the King of Cloister and while the actor doesn’t get to be as showy as he’s been in past roles, his presence certainly adds gravity to being the king.

Not exactly for sure how the giants were created here- oh sure CGI is obvious but just not for sure if motion capture was involved using the real actors. The great Bill Nighy is credited with the part of General Fallon the two-headed leader of the giants with John Kassir being credited as playing his small head. I found it amusing to watch the two heads interact even though those interactions are fairly simplistic, but still you’d hear one grunt at the other in a knowing way and I’d certainly like to think there was some play between the actors on that, but I don’t know for sure. But still it’s a nifty character as are Fallon’s lead warriors, Fee, Fye, Foe and Fumm.

I know some will probably just find Jack the Giant Slayer totally boring just because there isn’t great depth to the story or the characters, but I just don’t think that was the point. I think Bryan Singer set out to make a basic good versus evil story and just wants to entertain you with the sheer spectacle of the idea. Will that be enough? Well, it certainly worked for me and I was surprised at just how much I had a smile on my face during the film and gently laughed over the absurdity of some of the situations. For that, of course, I can’t help but recommend it… this is fun stuff.