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DVD SAVANT

Jack the Giant Killer


Jack the Giant Killer
MGM Home Entertainment
1962 / Color / 1:66 flat letterbox / 94 min. / Street Date April 6, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Kerwin Mathews, Judi Meredith, Torin Thatcher, Walter Burke, Don Beddoe, Barry Kelley, Dayton Lummis, Anna Lee
Cinematography David S. Horsley
Special Effects Jim Danforth, Howard Anderson
Art Direction Fernando Carrere
Film Editor Grant Whytock
Original Music Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Written by Nathan Juran, Orville H. Hampton from his novel
Produced by Edward Small
Directed by Nathan Juran

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant missed Jack the Giant Killer and only caught up with it years later on laserdisc, after hearing legendary stories about its special effects, lawsuits, and an alternate musical version. I learned a thing or two about the show while working at MGM but will have to report on some of its history as hearsay. The film's special effects animator, Jim Danforth contends that the disc has a serious formatting problem.

Synopsis:

Evil magician Pendragon (Torin Thatcher) seeks to conquer Cornwall and uses monsters to kidnap Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith). But she's already been rescued once by handy lad Jack (Kerwin Mathews), and is plucked from his boat by more of Pendragon's demons. With a boy (Roger Mobley), a Viking (Barry Kelly) and a leprechaun-like elf (Don Beddoe) at his side, Jack challenges both the sorcerer's black magic and his terrifying monsters.

So here's the skinny on Jack the Giant Killer - the enormous success of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad motivated more than a few similar pictures, like Byron Haskin's Captain Sindbad and Bert I. Gordon's The Magic Sword, and giant monsters found their way into more than a few Italian sword and sandal films as well. But producer Edward Small put through a deal at United Artists and produced this virtual knock-off of the Ray Harryhausen classic that reused key personnel for a story with a great many similarities. 7th stars Kerwin Mathews and Torin Thatcher returned, as did the director of the first show, Nathan Juran. The borrowed storyline has princess Judi Meredith kidnapped to a magical island where Sinbad, uh, I mean Jack, has to battle enormous monsters. The story is supposed to be an original by Orville Hampton ( prolific writer from TV and B-pix) but plot details not from Ken Kolb's 7th script are clearly swiped from models such as Beauty and the Beast (living candle holders), The Thief of Bagdad (a magical being imprisoned in a bottle; helpers turned into a dog and a monkey) and Disney's Sleeping Beauty (the magician transforming into a dragon).

Imitations aren't necessarily bad, but this picture is. Jack the Giant Killer is tacky in most production aspects and only energetic direction holds it together. It looks terrible, with unpleasant designs, cheap off-the shelf costumes and flat lighting that makes the bad sets and wardrobe look worse. There's also little magic in the soundtrack music.

The film has plenty of action and violence. The monsters are destructive and Jack hacks at them with scythes and swords - he repeatedly jabs the Cyclops-like Cormoran point blank in a shot as violent as the stabbing in Psycho. We see individual sword strikes cleave big gashes in the dragon that attacks Jack at the end (one slice is shown in a still on the back of the DVD box).

The rest of the film ends up in familiar Edward Small-Robert E. Kent territory. The leads are all acceptable, with the caveat that they've all been better elsewhere. Torin Thatcher in particular is dragged down by the script and a costume that makes him look ... silly. Walter Burke (The President's Analyst) is pretty good as Pendragon's main henchman, and the late Anna Lee is okay as an involutary spy in the castle. Judi Meredith has a double role when Pendragon transforms her into an evil, yellow-eyed witch perhaps inspired by Barbara Steele's binary appearance in Black Sunday. Finally, Don Beddoe is rather good as the little leprechaun fellow, Diablotin; it's only the limp effects that let him down - especially an ugly rainbow for a finish.

Jack the Giant Killer probably has more effects than The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad but for quality there's no comparison. The design of simple things like painted castles and magical mountains isn't very imaginative, and the uneven color betrays most of the mattes and double exposures. Only small children are going to be fooled by the many un-magical and distracting cel animation effects that imitate fire, rays and other phenomena.

The reason most of us wanted to see the film was the animation effects; we'd heard that they were done by the famous animator Jim Danforth and some of the stills published in Photon and Famous Monsters looked pretty good, especially a multi-tentacled sea monster. Jack the Giant Killer is cinematic proof why stop-motion animation didn't become more widely used - it can't just be ordered up at an effects house. As vocal stop-motion advocates claim, the craft requires dedication and artistry. The models built for this show are poorly designed. The Cormoran monster is awkwardly proportioned. When gigantic, its arms seem to bend at someplace other than the elbow. Its face has a frozen dead stare and its eyes look dead as well. The two-headed monster on Pendragon's island is even more unlikely in design - it has a definite single backbone that doesn't support either of its two heads.

The final dragon is merely okay, with an un-menacing doglike face and a plastic appearance shared by the other monsters. The one interesting creature is the sea serpent conjured by the good guys to defend Jack against the double-headed giant. The serpent might be a starfish-octopus-lizard combo - it also is anatomically unsound, but at least its design is surprising.

This is perhaps the first feature to imitate full-out Ray Harryhausen's rear-projection matting process to combines live action with animation models. There were earlier films with dinosaurs and UA's The Beast of Hollow Mountain had miniature rear projection in CinemaScope, but Jack uses all of Ray's tricks. The film has many animation setups, but the technique is no improvement on the master - the rear projections are soft and grainy and the colors go all over the place. The animation itself is inferior. Some shots are done very sloppily (a few look to be done on 2's - two frames instead of one for each motion) and the choice of angles often makes the models look bad. None of the action is very smooth, and the giant faces tend to chatter across the screen in closeup. There's little suspension of disbelief for any but the youngest of children - and not enough artistry or invention to make us want to believe in these creatures. Not since Lippert's The Lost Continent have so many errors been seen in a stop-motion film; a frame-by-frame examination of shots show braces and animation gauges (metal rods swung into position to give the animator a reference for his next re-position of the model) popping in regularly. In one angle of a green serpent writhing, a single frame moves one of its tentacles from screen center down to the bottom of the frame before popping up again, evidence of a "bad frame" that perhaps was meant to be cut out but wasn't.

The word on the street has it that a lawsuit caused the film to be withdrawn from exhibition for a period, but I don't know the extent to which that is true. Producers Small and UA cheapie expert Robert Kent reworked the picture as a musical, cutting three minutes and synchronizing a new voice track with added music and singing. I've seen pieces of this second version on cable television in the 80s, and on a single reference tape held by MGM in the 1990s. It would seem to have been a tough, thankless job for a composer. Someone had to write tunes and lyrics to fit the mouth movements in existing dialogue scenes.

Not all of the dialogue is sung. If memory serves, there are only four or five songs in the musical version: (1) a new main title song; (2) We Have Failed Master (which DOES use sung dialogue); (3) a love song Jack sings to the Princess; and, best of all, (4) A Spectacle to See, a happy, jolly song the villain and his henchman sing while Jack fights for his life.

In addition, all the leprechaun's dialogue is sung. None of this is Stephen Sondheim quality but the fact that any of it works is amazing. Torin Thatcher's new singing voice is rather good and most of the time fits his mouth well. I remember the lyrics "Jack! Jack! Jump on the monster's back!" when Kerwin Mathews leaps atop the dragon at the conclusion. Readers who saw the musical re-do on cable television don't like it much, but I wish MGM would have released a double bill disc with both versions of the film.

The final controversy surrounding the movie surfaced with the DVD release. According to internet forum posts by Jim Danforth, someone asked him about the film after it had already been transferred ay 1:66 to approximate the theatrical aspect ratio. Danforth told them that all transfers of the film have been completely botched. His first claim is that the original release Aspect ratio was 1:37, the Academy AR that at the time of Jack the Giant Killer's release hadn't been used for the vast majority of studio pictures for six or seven years. The credit blocks in Jack's title sequence are composed to be exhibited between 1:66 and 1:85, and we all know that most theaters projected widescreen films any way that suited them. However, if Mr. Danforth says the effects sequences were all planned and shot to be Academy 1:37, he ought to know.  1

Danforth's second claim is more readily understandable - the transfer crops in and recenters to the right all of the special effects shots. The original camera negative for the effects scenes was exposed at Full Silent Aperture, using the whole area of the film frame including the soundtrack area to minimize grain. Original prints would have reduced this full aperture information down into the Academy frame, which accomodates a soundtrack on the left and has fat frame lines. Apparently MGM just telecine'd the negative as if it were standard, cutting off the left side of the frame (where the soundtrack goes) and cropping off the the top and bottom (where the 'fat' frame lines belong). So enlarged and cropped image is grainer than it should be, and compositions are thrown off to the right.

It's easily observable on the DVD; the cropping on the right side is correct while the left, top and bottom are too tight. Details like the little doorway that the doll-sized Cormoran walks through are cropped off screen, and many other compositions are thrown off just enough to be distracting. This cropping perhaps added to the confusion of earlier reviewers who thought Jack the Giant Killer was an anamorphic film.


MGM's DVD of Jack the Giant Killer is okay but not terrific-looking. The color is a somewhat washed out most of the time, but the poor overall design and grainy effects can take most of the blame. The soundtrack is clear. This kiddie show will interest fantasy fans, especially animation devotees who will want to examine every frame of its plentiful special effecs.

For extras there's just a trailer. The elaborate and tasteful box art doesn't reflect the movie itself.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Jack the Giant Killer rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 13, 2004


Footnote:

1. By the way, if you look at the overall animation in the movie, only the sea serpent creature moves with the kind of smoothness and artistry we associate with the best of stop-motion animators. Would it be foolish to wager that this particular creature was Jim Danforth's work?
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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