Bryan Singer gave us Keyser Söze, began the millennial superhero craze with X-Men, and almost ended it singlehandedly with Superman Returns. With Jack the Giant Slayer, he now dips his toes into the current, likely not-as-long-lasting Hollywood trend of the re-imagined fairy tale movie. The delay of the original release from last summer to now was disappointing to some, and suspicious to others, but the extra time gave the production breathing room to tweak some of the rumored bad FX work.
Singer has always been a technically proficient director; what went wrong with Superman Returns was that the story ideas were too big and off the mark, even for a character as mythical as the Man of Steel. But big ideas are certainly called for in this case, and they come to pretty spectacular fruition, even if some of the nuances do get trampled in the process.
Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a farm boy living on the outskirts of the kingdom of Cloister, and Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is the royal princess. The film begins with them as children, simultaneously listening to their parents recount the legend of the evil race of giants that live in the sky, the good king who managed to fight them off, and the monks whose sacred duty it is to keep them in exile. All the players in the apparently now mandatory animated sequence that accompanies the setup are fashioned as wooden figures, perhaps inadvertently foreshadowing some of the character development. Then little Jack and Isabelle grow up, and it becomes the basic story of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-sells-horse-to-monk-for-beans, boy-meets-girl-again, boy-and-girl-meet-magic-sky-reaching-super-plant.
Hoult and Tomlinson are certainly likable, but their roles are so thinly and functionally written as to blend into the background, which is no small feat in IMAX 3D. Jack is a nice kid, defined by his attraction to Isabelle and a minor aversion to heights. That’s it. Isabelle is very pretty, and desirous of a life of adventure outside the palace and her royal obligations, much like every single young princess in the history of cinema. It’s easy to imagine the film as a piece of Ikea furniture, with instructions reading “Insert herö-A and heröine-B into plöt pöint C.” But that’s the bad news.
Isabelle is politically betrothed to a scheming nobleman played with slimy but focused zeal by Stanley Tucci. And Ewan McGregor plays the dashing head of the royal guard with effortless buoyancy. The film picks up notably when either of these two is on screen.
Oh, yes, then there are also giants. Much of the pre-release griping has focused on the uninspired and somewhat cartoony design of the CG behemoths, but that’s probably a case of unreasonable expectations. The giants have to serve many functions—they have to look like us, otherwise they wouldn’t be giants so much as other creatures altogether; they have to be menacing and vile enough to clearly come off as bad guys; but they can’t be so scary as to traumatize half of the intended audience. In all those respects, they’re a success.
Singer and crew fail to match the emotional heft of the epic Tolkien vibe they’re clearly going for. But if you can get past the by-the-storybook script, Jack the Giant Slayer is good, harmless fun, worth seeing for the action, which is pretty mind-blowing in some cases. So come for the giants, but, well, also stay for the giants.
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy
Release Date: Mar. 1, 2013