Once upon a time in the not too distant past, some Hollywood geniuses decided to pillage the dusty old book shelves of their childhood and breathe new life into some old fairy tales with mixed, more often abysmal, results.
Last year, we had “Snow White and the Huntsman” with forever dour Kristen Stewart consistently being upstaged by Charlize Theron as the evil queen. More recently, there’s been “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”, turning the Grimm siblings into cocky, wise-cracking medieval celebrity bounty hunters after the magically wicked Wiccans.
Peter Jackson’s recent first installment of his “The Hobbit” series was a tedious exercise that reminded me of the multiple times I nodded off to sleep during various portions of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy .
That recent track history in mind, I held little hope for the new film “Jack the Giant Slayer” to end happily after after for my psyche when it’s final credits rolled. Surprisingly, while not a perfect film in many ways, “Jack the Giant Slayer” has enough excitement and visual thrills going for it to make it a palatable little diversion after you’ve checked out all the recent Oscar winners at the Cineplex.
Director Bryan Singer takes a break from his work on the popular “X-Men” franchise to deliver a film that’s a fairly engaging, but simplistic, fairy tale yarn peppered with enough humor and some truly exciting action sequences to make it worth your while.
The film’s ultimate hero, Jack is first seen as a young child enraptured with bedtime stories told to him by his widowed father about a race of evil, man-eating giants who once threatened Mankind. Jack wonders aloud if there is more truth than myth to this old story.
Meanwhile, a young Princess Isabelle, is listening to the same story from her mother while being tucked in for bed. It’s not hard to figure out, rather predictably, that these two youngsters with vivid imaginations will eventually cross paths one day.
Ten years later, the rural commoner Jack ( Nicholas Hoult ) and Princess Isabelle ( Eleanor Tomlinson ) do indeed meet, as the young princess ventures out of the protective surroundings of the royal castle seeking a bit of adventure. Granted, Pixar’s Princess Merida in “Brave” definitely covered the same semi-rebellious ground last year, and with more panache. But, Tomlinson’s Isabelle is pleasing enough to make the device work here, albeit without much added nuance.
Soon enough, Jack finds himself in a position to try and protect the Princess from some unruly rabble in the courtyard crowd who fail to recognize Her Highness. Some sparks fly between the two setting the stage for a rather chaste romantic dance that will carry throughout the rest of the film.
Meanwhile, the King ( Ian McShane ) has promised Isabelle’s hand in marriage to the older and conniving Roderick ( Stanley Tucci ) who has much bigger plans in mind to conquer the kingdom. It seems Roderick knows the same old legend about the giants and the truth behind the myth.
After rescuing the Princess, sort of; Jack is given a bag of magic beans by a monk who has stolen them from Roderick. The monk begs Jack to get them back to the monastery where they will be safe from Roderick and anyone else bent on exploiting their use. Before trying to escape Roderick’s men as they close in, the monk warns Jack “Whatever you do, don’t get them wet.”
The adventurous Isabelle ventures out once again and soon finds herself lost in a rainstorm and takes refuge at Jack’s ramshackle home. As the two chat, one of the precious beans falls under the house where the rainwater touches it and causes it to sprout wildly into a gigantic beanstalk that lifts the entire house, along with Jack and Isabelle, into the clouds and, unbeknownst to them, to the land where the giants roam.
Jack falls free while trying to save Isabelle; but soon convinces the King to join a crew of his trusted knights led by Sir Elmont ( Ewan McGregor ) and also the wily Roderick to help rescue the Princess. After scaling the mammoth beanstalk that soars past the clouds, the group encounters a race of brutish and hygienically challenged giants all too eager to literally bite their heads off as an appetizer.
Suffice to say, from here the story heads into territory that ultimately leads to a betrayal by Roderick and a grand scale attack on the King’s Earth bound kingdom by an army of the giants bent on revenge, destruction and an all-you-can-eat buffet of Mankind.
Singer rounds up a rather impressive cast of actors for a film of this type. McShane, McGregor and Tucci all perform their roles with earnest dedication tinged with some effective moments of humor, despite some rather silly dialogue. Sadly, Bill Nighy, like his role as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Carribean franchise, is once again saddled with a CGI character that renders him literally unrecognizable beyond being the voice of the giants’ malevolent leader.
Hoult and Tomlinson are simply okay in their roles; but their characters’ supposed romantic sparks fail to convincingly heat up the screen. Tomlinson’s adventurous Isabelle again is perhaps a bit too reminiscent of “Brave’s” Princess Merida and pales by the inevitable comparison.
Still, Singer brings an overall entertaining and fanciful approach to this fairy tale that has some fine action sequences; particularly at the film’s climax. The CGI effects mixed with actual scenery design work just fine to set the proper atmosphere; though as with many 3-D films these days, that gimmickry does little to add to the experience on screen.
The one significant flaw in “Jack the Giant Slayer” is the PG-13 violence in the film. After all, it’s presumed target audience are parents looking for a diversion with their young children. Instead, Singer presents a fantasy that looks, on the surface, like it could be a sanitized Disney-like tale; but there’s plenty of old style Brothers Grimm grimness scattered throughout. While “Jack the Giant Slayer” presents itself as a fairy tale for the kids; the film is chock full of rather mature moments where characters are stabbed, stomped on, eaten like bonbons and more by both the human villains and giants alike.
That may be the one significant problem with the film. The story, characters and romance aren’t nuanced enough to deeply engross the adults to see this film on their own. On the other hand, the rather adult violence at times may make some parents squirm for bringing the kids along.
Still, there’s enough action and adventure in this rather lightweight fairy tale to outweigh it’s overall flaws. Like a simple bedtime story, “Jack the Giant Slayer” satisfies and entertains in the moment – perhaps easily forgotten, but still fun while it lasts.
Tim Estiloz is a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. – Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.