There assuredly a fair bit of fun to be had while watching Bryan Singer’s classic-yet-cracked fairytale adaptation Jack the Giant Slayer, but it’s the kind of fun that needs to be had with the brain’s switch firmly placed in the off position. Following a well executed set-up and an intriguing premise, the film eventually finds a way to stumble pretty badly in the plotting department. But that doesn’t matter when Singer and company seemingly only want to dazzle in the first place.
18 year old medieval farm boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) trades away a horse and cart to a skittish monk for some magic beans that grow into a giant beanstalk that reaches into the clouds and to a magical realm. Or at least, that would be the logline for a straightahead telling of the classic tale. In this version, the beans were dark magic kept secret since the days of King Edward and protected until a power hungry assistant to the current king decided to keep them – and a crown that can control the human hating horde of humongous giants at the top of the beanstalks – for his own nefarious use at a future date.
Through vaguely the same series of events that happened in the story a beanstalk grows and Jack has to go up it, but this time it’s in service of the current ruler (Ian McShane) whose daughter Isabelle (Eleanor Thompson) has become stranded up at the top. Wanting to impress the girl, the king allows Jack to accompany his evil assistant (Stanley Tucci), a good hearted knight (Ewan McGregor), and a crew of soldiers on a rescue mission against some pretty tall odds and foes.
It sounds like there might be an abundance of plot that’s been added, but really it gets everything out of the way in about 20 minutes or so and most of what’s happening is the introduction of the most basic of character traits and a handful of Chekov’s Guns to come into play later. It’s as simple as such a bombastic epic really needs, and Singer brings the same general energy to the film’s big set pieces that he brought to the first two films in the X-Men franchise.
The cast also plays things well within the parameters of the script. Hoult manages to start his year off 2-for-2 following this and Warm Bodies as a charming, if somewhat ordinary young man. Tucci hits the right balance between menace and camp, but Ewen Bremner steals scenes from him as his gleefully psychotic right-hand man. McGregor seems to be having a great time doing an Errol Flynn impression with his fearless heroic type, and McShane adds a surprising amount of seriousness as the almost stoic king.
The production design also features some great moments of ingenuity and grandeur that will look better the larger the screen the film is viewed on. The CGI giants and some of the stunts aren’t always that convincing, but the action moves along at a fast enough clip that it’s hard to get bent out of shape over those details.
But where the film does very noticeably stumble is right at the beginning of the third act. Without going into too much spoilery detail, there’s a very clear point where the film should have ended and would have done so very logically. But then the film goes on so it can end with a pretty epic battle between the humans and the giants. The problem with this is that it opens up some pretty big logical holes for a film that’s essentially already wrapped up quite nicely. The final battle is nice (if a bit overlong) to watch, but it isn’t necessary, and it oddly makes the giants look like a less credible threat by never being consistent in explaining just what their physical capabilities are. Again, it’s hard to explain without spoiling the end of the film, but since there was a very logical end point (and because the film actually keeps having beats where it seems like the credits could roll at any given second) it turns the brain back on and makes the viewer question if the whole movie was really like that or if it’s just this wonky third act that’s out of alignment.
It’s also oddly violent for a film with such a kid friendly hook. Most of the violence happens off screen, but there’s quite a lot of it, and even a few squashings, beheadings, and devourings made it into the film in bloodless but no less gruesome or disturbing form. Most kids over the age of 8 would probably be able to get around it, but for sensitive youngsters some of this could easily be nightmare fodder.
Then again, the film begins and ends with the legend of Jack and the beanstalk being told, and for what it’s worth, Singer manages to cut to the heart of it all to deliver an entertaining package as a whole. Even the questions that get raised as a result of some problems with the porting of the legend to the big screen don’t diminish the enjoyment too much. It’s a fine and fun night out at the movies, and it’s never aiming to be anything more than that.