The nicest thing I can say about Jack the Giant Slayer is that it’s better than The Hobbit, which is admittedly setting the bar pretty low as far as entertainment value goes. Just like last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman, here’s a steroidal expansion of a well-known fairy tale butched-up with a tougher title, a convoluted mythology and tons of PG-13 violence.
I’m not sure who out there was clamoring for a megabudget adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk, and I must admit when I first stumbled upon a TV spot for this film, I just assumed I was watching a sketch comedy show parody. But alas, this is is no joke.
Nicholas Hoult, who gave such a winning performance as a lovestruck zombie in last month’s Warm Bodies, blandly goes through the motions here as poor tenant farmer Jack, who eventually trades a horse for some magic beans, but not until after a mind-boggling amount of backstory table-setting. There are an awful lot of characters in this movie, and the screenplay (credited to no less than four writers) keeps them all milling about at cross purposes to a point where some viewers might require a flow chart to keep track of all the disparate motivations and agendas.
First we’ve got the fetching princess, played by a dull Eleanor Tomlinson, who longs for adventure. (We know she’s a perfect match for Jack because one of the many early expository sequences is cross cut between the two of them as children having the exact same conversation with their parental figures.) She’s trying to get out of an arranged marriage to Stanley Tucci’s gap-toothed heel, who minces about all day with his simpering sidekick (Ewen Bremner) looking for those magic beans we keep hearing about.
There’s also the dashing knight with a silly mustache (Ewan McGregor) and a put-upon king (Ian McShane) who wears a suit of armor so chintzy, it seems to have been borrowed from a local community theater workshop. After an interminable amount of futzing around, eventually we get to the damn beanstalk already, and it sweeps the princess high up in the sky to the fabled kingdom of giants.
Jack the Giant Slayer is almost fascinating in that, as far as I can tell, it is a movie with no target audience. It occasionally aims for the flip irreverence of The Princess Bride, assuming that anachronistic attitudes in a fairy-tale setting automatically constitute cleverness. But most of the time, it’s played ramrod straight and is relatively joyless. The broad performances and silly costumes give the vibe of a children’s film, (no matter how hard they work to complicate the mythology, this is still Jack and the Beanstalk) but the film contains several graphic death scenes, and at the end, someone even drops an F-bomb. It’s an excellent movie to bring your kids to if you want them to have nightmares for a couple weeks.
This is filmmaking by committee—one of those unwieldy studio tentpoles where there’s so much money on the line, every executive gives notes and nobody’s making the same movie, so you end up with a bizarre mishmash of conflicting tones. Most surprising is that Jack the Giant Slayer was directed by Bryan Singer, a filmmaker who usually finds a way to smuggle his distinctive obsessions into genre products. Singer had a blast with the political subtext of the first two X-Men movies, and his flawed but lovely Superman Returns is the saddest and most personal of the recent spate of comic book adaptations. But there’s nothing onscreen here that even suggests his sensibility. It’s anonymous hackwork.
Originally scheduled to open during blockbuster season last July, Jack the Giant Slayer has been plagued by reshoots and budget overruns. Well, $190 million sure doesn’t buy what it used to: This is one seriously shoddy-looking movie. The CGI appears to be half finished, particularly during a lazy eyesore of an animated sequence that takes place during one of the movie’s many prologues. When we finally meet the giants, they’ve got evocative, frowny faces, but Singer doesn’t bother to depict them near anything that would give a sense of scale to their giant-ness. They’re just big dudes.
Just when you think it’s mercifully over, the film tacks on another battle sequence, which accomplishes nothing except proving that the filmmakers saw Lord of the Rings and liked it very much. I worry for where these adaptations are headed. What’s next? The Itsy Bitsy Spider?