In an age when Hollywood is scraping the bottom of the barrel for fresh ideas; when every other film is a remake or a reboot or a reimagining, sometimes, going back to the source material of many of the stories that we all grew up with is the key to finding a great idea and a great story. In the case of Jack the Giant Slayer, director Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects, X-Men, Apt Pupil, Valkyrie) and writers’ Darren Lemke (Shrek Fourever After) and Christopher McQuarrie (Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) have done just that. They have taken a beloved, classic children’s story and presented it in a new and exciting way for families of all ages to enjoy. And unlike the recent mess that was Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack succeeds in almost every way.
The story begins with Jack as a young boy, lying in bed in his father’s humble farmhouse, scared of the thunder (or the Giants, as his now deceased mother always said). His father reads him the timeless tale of King Erik the Great, who fought and defeated the Giants using a magic crown forged from the heart of a giant, which gave him control over the monstrous beasts in a war fought long ago. In another part of the realm, Princess Isabelle is being read the same story by her mother in her lavish bedroom inside the castle. This opening serves as an excellent way to introduce the audience to the lead characters, the differences that separate them (wealth, standing) and the past story/legend of the giants who live in the sky between heaven and earth.
With that exposition out of the way, we flash ahead ten years, and Jack (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) is now a teenager working on his uncle’s farm. Times are tough and the uncle gives Jack the family horse and cart to sell for money. So Jack sets off to the castle town to sell his horse, and he ends up meeting Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) who is in disguise watching a stage play with the commoners. The captain of the King’s Guard, Elmont (Ewan McGregor), discovers the princess and returns her to the castle.
Isabelle is set to marry the King’s man, Roderick (Stanley Tucci), and she is not happy about it. Roderick is much older and he has bad teeth, not to mention, as a princess she wants to experience love and romance and adventure and all of the other classic storybook tropes.
Unbeknownst to the King (Ian McShane) and Isabelle, Roderick has a nefarious plan to use some magic beans and Erik the Great’s magic crown to control the giants and take over the realm. To prevent this, a monk steals the beans and escapes into a crowd outside the castle.
Jack bumps into the monk and reluctantly trades the horse for the beans (so the monk can escape) and then Jack goes home to a very unhappy uncle. The rest of the story you probably know. The beans (or a single bean in this instance) get planted, a huge beanstalk grows to the land of the giants and all hell breaks loose.
Lemke and McQuarrie craft the story of Jack the Giant Slayer in a way that is equal parts exciting, scary and fun. There are moments of humor and adventure, and the story moves at a good pace. When we meet the titular giants, they are dirty, monstrous things who crave the taste of humans and having been separated from their favorite food for so long, aim to invade the land below solely driven by their cravings.
The lead giant, General Fallon (Bill Nighy and John Kassir) is a two-headed tyrant who holds command over the giant masses, and is constantly at odds with a few fellow giants who seek to overthrow him. The Giants are 100% CGI and they look good on screen. Their sizes remain constant, which has always been the folly of fully rendered CGI creations, and by keeping the villains in CGI, Singer has more room to push boundaries. One giant picks his nose and eats what he pulls out, and in animated form, the action is pronounced with a long, wet trail of snot that the giant slurped up which caused kids in the audience to laugh and adults to squirm. In this instance, it worked for both.
All of the performances in Jack the Giant Slayer are good, and it is easy to see that the cast is having fun with the story. Ewan McGregor plays a dashing sort, and Stanley Tucci hams it up as the bad guy of the story. Hoult and Tomlison have great chemistry on screen, and Ian McShane’s performance as the king is easily one of the best in the film. McShane could have easily pushed the role to the usual cliches as the ruler of the realm, but instead was inspiring as both a king and a father. Bill Nighy (Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean series) continues to shine under the CGI shroud, as his performance transcends the animation and his character comes alive, which says a lot seeing as he is 100% computer generated.
The 3D in Jack the Giant Slayer is some of the best I’ve seen. Singer opted to use the technology to enhance his story and not take the project over with gimmick. As just one example, the scenes of Jack and King’s guard climbing the beanstalk have beautiful depth and it worked to make the audience feel like they were part of the climb. There were no instances of blatant “things flying at your face,” which is always a sign that the 3D was added for more for gimmick and less for the overall presentation.
**Possible Spoiler Alert**
The best part of the film is that the main story seems to wrap up with about 20 minutes left to go in the 114 minute run time. With the conflicts resolved and the bad guys punished and good guys seemingly safe, all that is left is an incredibly shot and edited invasion sequence to finish out the film. The Giants attack the kingdom with a ferocity that is unmatched and for the first time, you feel fear for the characters. There are mass amounts of death and destruction, which to this point in the film has been carefully edited out to appeal to larger audiences, and the special effects and 3D are in top form.
** End Spoiler**
With that being said, it is also important to note that Jack the Giant Slayer is a true family film. There is enough to satisfy both children and adults, and the story is clean and well presented. As mentioned, most of the deaths happen off screen (we are treated to reaction shots of people being eaten or stomped on), and the humor is childish at times (the booger eating scene, as example). The audience I saw this with was peppered with children, and Jack the Giant Slayer held their interest without terrifying them.
Jack the Giant Slayer is a film that harkens back to the classic family adventures of the 1980s, such as Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and The Neverending Story. Yes, there is a dark underlying plot, but it is told in a way that children of all ages (even as the film is rated PG-13) can enjoy. The action is top notch, the story moves at a great pace, and the performances are all enjoyable.
Bryan Singer has delivered a masterful, epic, big-budget fairy tale adventure that works on almost every level. It’s good to know that he still has the ability to tell good stories, as production on X-Men: Days of Future’s Past is now underway with Singer reclaiming the directing helm.
Jack the Giant Slayer opens nationwide on March 1, 2013 and it is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence.