If you ask a bunch of people what they thought of Jack the Giant Slayer, be prepared to hear this often: “It was better than I thought it would be.” And in that backhanded compliment lies the truth.
Director Bryan Singer’s film is a loose (very, very loose) adaptation of two stories: the English fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which tells the story of a boy named Jack who came across some magic beans that when grown lead to a giant’s kingdom, and the Arthurian story of “Jack the Giant Killer.” The film version takes both stories and throws them through the stereotypical Hollywood machine, thus exponentially increasing the explosion and destruction quota.
Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a farmer dreaming of more, who is sent to the city in order to sell his uncle’s last horse and cart. Hijinks ensue and Jack ends up with nothing but a handful of beans given to him by a monk on the run. Later, a coincidental encounter at Jack’s farm with the incognito Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who is on the run and looking for adventure, ends with her atop the suddenly grown beanstalk in a kingdom of giants, and Jack joining the rescue party led by the knight, Elmont (Ewan McGregor). The giants, however, have a thing for eating humans, so they see the beanstalks as a bridgehead to the human realm, and so they prepare for an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of grade A human.
In the Beanstalk legend, Jack is a thief that steals gold (and the golden egg laying goose) from giants, where in the Arthurian tale he is a heroic murderer that kills several giants for eating cows. The movie though, is a traditional Hollywood fairy tale, with a princess in peril, a plucky and likable hero of humble origins, and a powerful enemy to defeat. Its PG-13 rating is actually a bit surprising, given that it is a family movie at its core in the tradition of 80s and 90s adventures, when simplicity ruled the day and things like realistic humans were considered dull. There is not a single original or surprising thing in this film.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. The plot isn’t dumb, just very basic and contrived. If you learn the names of more than four or five characters, you will be far ahead of the majority of audiences. Actors in this film play roles more than characters. That ends up putting a great deal of emphasis on the primary cast to sell the generic plot, but they aren’t helped by the effects.
The look of the giants is not bad in a technical sense, but it is odd and cartoony. That has nothing to do with technical limitations, but rather style choices. The brutes are meant to look inhuman, but they also need to walk the line between being grotesque while still being a family-friendly threat. The result is an enemy that is often one of the least interesting things on screen. The giants just never look right. The exaggerated design stands out, and they take on an air of CGI that would look more at home in a Pixar movie than in a live action film; it is something you can get over though.
The giants are also plot contrivances, and of the dozens you see on screen only two are ever really given anything resembling a story – the two headed leader Fallon (voiced by Bill Nighy and John Kassir), and his insubordinate second-in-command Fumm (voiced by Ben Daniels). In a different type of movie that might work, but since the giants are such a focus of Jack the Giant Slayer their total lack of depth makes them somewhat boring to watch.
The human side of things, however, fares much better. McGregor seems to relish his role of Elmont, the stereotypical knight. He’s not the lead, which may have allowed him a slight breather from much of his more recent dramatically demanding work. It’s a fairly shallow role, but one that he seems to truly enjoy playing which makes him fun to watch. Tomlinson’s princess is fairly trite, but the actress is likable enough and has good chemistry with the film’s star, Hoult.
With two movies out in the span of a month (the other being Warm Bodies), and roles in the upcoming X-Men: First Class sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the indie film Young Ones, Hoult isn’t going anywhere. Hollywood has loved him ever since he made Hugh Grant look good in About a Boy, and he doesn’t disappoint here. His Jack is likable enough to carry the film, and he plays a modest, but heroic young man from humble origins well. The role is somewhat idiot proofed, which means the filmmakers just needed to plug someone in that audiences could relate with, and they did just that with Hoult who is heading for the A-list.
The story never takes itself too seriously, which is a good thing since there are a few points that rely heavily on coincidence rather than clever storytelling. But again though, the best audience for this film is a family looking for something they can all watch, and the PG-13 rating is a bit of a misnomer. There are a few violent parts, but there are also plenty of lowbrow jokes. It’s a movie that requires very little brain power.
Jack the Giant Slayer is a likable film with a simple plot that should have mass appeal through its complete lack of offensive material. It entertains without offering anything new. If you go into Jack the Giant Slayer looking for something groundbreaking, you will leave annoyed. If you go in with minimal expectations and just the hope of an enjoyable, albeit somewhat forgettable film, you won’t be disappointed.