Imagine if someone at Disney wrote a Jack and the Beanstalk animated movie at some point in the 1990s employing all of the company’s trademark staples, but decided to shelve the project. Now imagine that someone dusted off the screenplay two decades later amid the fairy tale reboot craze, and decided to transform it into a live-action blockbuster. The result would resemble 2013’s Jack the Giant Slayer, a misguided fantasy epic and a total waste of time. Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie was meant to be released in June 2012 but was delayed about nine months for unclear reasons, and underwent a title change from Jack the Giant Killer to the less vicious Jack the Giant Slayer. Although it’s an attractive-looking big-budget movie, it only sporadically springs to life, and the film seems confused about what it wants to be.
As a child, farm boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) was read bedtime stories about monks who used magic beans to grow beanstalks in an attempt to meet God. Instead of reaching the heavens, however, the monks encountered a land of bloodthirsty giants with an eye towards conquering mankind. As an adult, Jack is struggling to make ends meet, now living with his disparaging uncle. While looking to sell a horse in town, Jack is given magic beans by a nervous monk. That night, Jack is visited by Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a rebellious young woman wanting to explore the world before she goes through with her arranged marriage to Roderick (Stanley Tucci). But a rainstorm triggers the growing power of one of the beans, lifting the princess up into the clouds. Hoping to rescue Isabelle, Jack joins the king’s rescue efforts led by royal guard Elmont (Ewan McGregor). Climbing beyond the clouds, the crew enter the land of the giants, who become determined to climb down the beanstalk and face off against humans once again.
Jack the Giant Slayer is a complete mess. Due to its initial title and a few incidental plot details, it looks as if the movie was at one stage intended to be a remake of the 1962 flick Jack the Giant Killer, an adaptation of the Celtic legend of the same name. But Singer’s film takes most of its cues from the classic story Jack and the Beanstalk, another piece of literature which just happens to also involve giants and a protagonist named Jack. The mishmash is peculiar, to say the least. Added to this, it looks like Giant Slayer started life as a gritty fairytale reboot in the vein of Snow White and the Huntsman and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. But it looks as if the studio stepped in, likely in the late stages of production, to demand that the film be rejigged to be a soft kiddie fantasy adventure (probably the reason for the film’s extensive delay and the title change). Hence, the giants here are aggressive and bite off a lot of human heads, yet we never see any of it, with awkward cutaways hiding the carnage and with blood oddly lacking. The result is, in a word, bewildering.
The schizophrenic tone is a huge issue, as Singer mounts battle scenes and gruesome giant killings but also tries to play to the Shrek audience, with silly slapstick humour and deaths happening off-screen. This type of mash-up can work in the right hands (Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi can do this stuff while unconscious), but it’s just a mess in the hands of this team. To Singer’s credit, Jack the Giant Slayer is handsomely mounted; the huge $195 million budget was put to good use as the production values are mightily impressive, though the CGI for the giants is an oddly mixed bag. The world of the giants is an impressive creation; it’s an island floating in mid-air, and a lot of thought and detail went into its creation. The movie works in parts, as set-pieces shine here and there, but it fails to hold together as a coherent whole. The picture eventually climaxes with a large-scale battle pitting the humans against giant soldiers. It’s an enjoyable enough sequence sold with solid effects, but it’s a complete rip-off of the Minas Tirith siege from The Lord of the Rings. And Peter Jackson did a far better job.
All of the actors seem to be on different wavelengths. Hoult and Tomlinson play it completely straight, but Tucci leans towards outright camp and McGregor apparently believed he was in The Princess Bride. Meanwhile, as the King, Ian McShane looks fresh from Lord of the Rings auditions. Admittedly, though, the actors are all good enough, especially McGregor who’s very watchable as Elmont. Also worth a mention is Bill Nighy, instantly recognisable as the voice of one of the giants. It would seem that Nighy just recycled his Davey Jones voice here.
Although Jack the Giant Slayer is periodically enjoyable in the moment, it’s forgettable to the max; the very definition of humdrum blockbuster entertainment. And that’s disappointing, because it could’ve worked if Singer’s crew committed to one tone. If it was a DreamWorks animated adventure like How to Train Your Dragon, it could’ve been mature and imaginative. And if it was a gritty fantasy adventure, it could’ve been a compelling movie. But the final product is indecisive, not to mention it runs far too long at almost two hours. Slow-paced and plodding when it should be light on its feet, it lacks the charm and multi-tiered appeal of all the best family films. Suddenly, Singer’s return to theX-Men franchise is worrying.