It didn’t seem too much to ask that Bryan Singer’s long- and little-awaited Jack the Giant Slayer be a wall-to-wall disaster, the sort of bomb that brings this regrettable recent string of fairy-tale reboots to an end. The most giant thing about Jack seemed to be its checklist of catastrophe: an overly optimistic estimation of audience interest, a string of screenwriters, unproven stars, and a nine-month delay that swapped a prime summer 2012 slot for the same early spring dumping ground that brought us John Carter, more recently referred to as “2012’s Jack the Giant Slayer.”
Now the numbers are in, and audiences are officially even slightly less interested in Jack than they were in John Carter. My disappointment follows a less charitable logic: It’s irritating that much of the grand fiasco I’d worked myself up for ended up being passable, even charming family entertainment.
After a dreadfully animated recap of human/giant affairs, Jack the Giant Slayer treats us to a warm, attentive set-up of a familiar story. A poor farmer sends his orphaned nephew, Jack (Warm Bodies’ Nicholas Hoult), to sell their horse and cart at the kingdom market, where Jack happens to encounter independent-minded Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) before his cart is stolen, and he ends up trading the horse to a suspiciously desperate monk. (A classic blunder.) The monk has no money, but offers a handful of beans as collateral. “Whatever you do,” he warns, “don’t get them wet.”
We know that much of the story, and what happens next, but Singer and the four writers have a refreshing investment in telling the story well. (Most of the credit for the screenplay would seem to belong to regular Singer collaborator Christopher McQuarrie.) From major players like the King (Ian McShane), his head of security (Ewan McGregor), and Isabelle’s weaselly husband-to-be (a goofy Stanley Tucci) to the colorful secondary cast, the characters are all well-drawn. They’re also integral to the plotting, which, in a Disney-ish spirit, cozies up to cliché but always manages to gently deflect it.
Some reviewers have even drawn comparisons with The Princess Bride. I get it, I suppose, but Jack the Giant Slayer lacks that film’s winking wit. That actually works to its credit; in its straight-faced telling, Jack avoids the cynical “edge” of Red Riding Hood, the exhausting archness of Mirror Mirror, and the puzzling mixture of both in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. It’s almost enough to make you root for Jack.
Then, unfortunately, comes all this business with the giants. As half the cast make their way up the beanstalk and emerge into the fabled lands of Gantua, what seems like a set-up for a dreamworld of magic levels off into head-scratching half-assery. The landscape seems to have lots of trees, and there are floating cliffs, but then the whole concept of Gantua is that it’s a floating cliff. The giants farm normal-sized sheep, and normal-sized pigs; if there are other food sources, they aren’t mentioned. Nor are giant women, or children. Even the fact that they apparently have different races seems to be contrived in service of a questionable sight gag. There’s plenty of action spectacle as the humans try to escape the giants’ clutches, but we’re only concerned (thanks at this point to a wonderful cast) with the characters, not what’s happening storywise. The giants don’t manage to change the film’s tone, necessarily, but they make short, boring work of scuffing it up.
The bright side is that we rarely have to look at them for very long between smashings and crushings, since there are only two speaking roles for the giants. Singer’s insistence on nailing the CG was a big factor in Jack’s delayed release, but the result still looks two years behind the times technically and one good art department short of compelling character design. (Bill Nighy, whose Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean remains a gold standard for motion-capture acting, is indistinguishable as giant honcho Gen. Fallon.) Between the conception and execution of Gantua, it’s fascinating how little inspiration the film has to spare the giants that share its title.
And thus a $200 million disaster-in-slow motion flirts with real goodness, setting up a winning, family-friendly afternoon at the movies before gradually stooping to generic peril of unpleasant spirit and unnecessarily cold violence. Despite my pessimism (and the rest of America’s, apparently) it’s still extra sad to see something doomed done well for even a short time, and know that no one involved will be asked to do anything like it ever again.