“Jack the Giant Slayer” is a postmodern fable in the tradition of “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” and “Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunter.” It darkens the already dark world of folklore through the lens of modern action sensibilities. At one point Jack, played by Nicholas Hoult, plunges a big rusty hook into a giant’s neck and twists it in until the creature finally ceases to struggle. Another giant has its eyes popped out. The castle town of Cloister defends itself with arrow-flinging Gatling guns. “IF YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW THE ORIGINAL STORY,” the trailers boomed…
But we do. You know what, we DO know the story, and that’s not what the film is like at all. Let me try again.
“Jack the Giant Slayer” is a $200 million fantasy-adventure epic in the same vein as “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” and “Snow White and the Huntsman.” It exaggerates and distorts the original fairy tales, the one about the beanstalk and the one about King Arthur’s trusted giant killer, but at heart it’s the same beast, just even bigger. The beanstalk is not a single leafy offshoot but hundreds of intertwining, CGI strands. Dozens of giants plow through the forest clubbing knights off their horses and then hurling burning trees over castle walls. The second half of the film burns through spectacle like a jackhammer, perhaps afraid if we don’t see beanstalks tearing through architecture every minute, we’ll stomp our feet and leave.
That’s not all there is though. Even this won’t do. No. I’ll have to start one more time.
“Jack the Giant Slayer” is like an animated Disney fairy tale in live-action, without the memorable music (sorry John Ottman), without the singing, but chock-full of the same naïve trust in the powers of adventure, storytelling and white heterosexual love. The film begins with a separate mother and father reading the same story to their children, a young Jack and a young Princess Isabelle, who will grow up to be young actress Eleanor Tomlinson. The crosscutting implies the children are fated for each other, Disney’s “true love conquers all” mantra taken to its creepy extreme. Later, after the children have grown, we find their bedside-reading parents have died (but of course), Isabelle is set to marry her father’s evil adviser (is there any other?) played with unambiguous power thirst, but plenty of ambiguous motive, by Stanley Tucci — who really deserves better — and both Jack and Isabella thirst for something bigger than their lot in life, something like an adventure (notice how the world itself shimmers with mystical wonder and endless possibilities.)
I haven’t been able to crack “Jack the Giant Slayer” with any of these descriptions, perhaps because the film is just not worth cracking. What it should be – and what it hopefully wants to be, though even this I’m unsure about – is an elating adventure for the whole family, a recreation of those moments when a parent teaches their kid how to read, that first foray into a fully-realized fantasy world revived on screen with the same restless spirit. And it fails. “Jack the Giant Slayer” is boring, at times mean spirited, and anathema to its very audience.
The trouble is director Bryan Singer, a man with an eye for good visual flair, I’ll grant him that much. But there’s no imagination. He’s dwelt in cheap plot turns, tacky deconstruction and all the hallmarks of the unchained geek filmmaker for too long, since his first Plot Twist With A Movie “The Usual Suspects,” and here he falls prey to the same bloated, inconsistent tone, where it’s unclear if he wants to emphasize action or comedy, political intrigue or mindless warfare. He’s hired frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie to rework “Jack the Giant Slayer’s” original screenplay, written by David Dobkin and Darren Lemke, ignoring the fact McQuarrie has exclusively produced crime and thriller flicks. Appropriately, the script has no idea how to be a fantasy film. The dialogue is rife with on-the-nose cliché. It leapfrogs through its story haphazardly. We barely meet Jack, who’s thrown about his own film, waylaid by subplots and set pieces and so much noise we only pay attention to him because Nicholas Hoult is such a charming actor, but even “Warm Bodies” remembered to ground his charm in purpose. The film breaks to an almost-complete halt around an hour in, just before revving back up for the “stunning” war scenes, but by then I’d tuned out.
I haven’t even mentioned the preposterous ending, possibly the dumbest, most wrongheaded gesture I’ve seen in a movie this size. It would destroy even a greater work that had taken the time to foster some goodwill. But “Jack the Giant Slayer” is not that work. It features an evil two-headed giant, voiced by Bill Nighy and John Kassir, whose second, small head is “funny” because he blubbers yowls, and appears mentally handicapped. After that, wouldn’t you expect wrongheaded?