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Jack the Giant Slayer shows the problem today's film companies have playing the big box office moviemaking gamble. Roll a winner and a single blockbuster can vacuum up the better part of a billion dollars. Why, I'll bet that The Avengers might actually have paid out some participation money to point-holders. But with so much development and production money sunk into individual projects, it's increasingly difficult to take a real risk, or to make anything much different than what pleased audiences a few months before. One better have a bankable cast and if possible a pre-sold theme or character - this is clearly why Marvel and DC comic characters dominate the screen. When things don't work out, as with last year's John Carter, the loss must be inconceivable. It's no longer a matter of a movie that underperformed - the losses can amount to a colossal financial hit. Jack the Giant Slayer isn't a pre-sold story. And it's got a lot of nerve to try to establish its own franchise in a market crowded with "dark" neo-noir caped crime fighters, all of whose stories have been memorized by every kid within the global reach of the industry marketing machine.
Was Jack a total disaster? It appears to have cost upwards of $150 million to make, and only earned back a fraction of that price tag. Suddenly I get a vision in my head of where a chunk of the taxpayer money went to, the billions that 'disappeared' in the financial crisis. Going in, Jack the Giant Slayer sounds like a reasonable risk. It's got young lovers, lots of action, a fairy-tale medieval setting and lots of fantasy violence that can be tweaked down to a PG-13 rating. In hindsight, it's too easy to invent faults. The movie has no mega-stars, and although likeable, its romantic leads generate next to no heat (kiss the Twilight crowd goodbye). The story is linear to a fault; anybody that saw Disney's Mickey and the Beanstalk as a kid already knows what to expect, so it doesn't feel "new". The screenwriters have added a number of charming touches, including storybook bookends that reach for a sort of NeverEnding Story - The Princess Bride feeling. But what lucky kids still get bedtime stories read to them in person?
Long ago in an England lost to time, the legend of the Good King that banished the Giants to their floating land high in the sky is a favorite storybook tale for kids both noble and humble. Jack (Nicholas Hoult of X-Men: First Class) comes back from market with just a handful of beans, and is called a knucklehead by his uncle. But Jack has also caught the admiring attention of the adventurous and disobedient Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson of Alice in Wonderland). Not soon thereafter, a giant beanstalk reaches to the heavens, taking Isabelle with it; her father King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) dispatches the daring Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and the brave Guardians to retrieve her. Also going along is Roderick (Stanley Tucci), Brahmwell's untrustworthy advisor; Elmont's brave comrade Crawe (Eddie Marsan of Happy-Go-Lucky); and Wicke (Ewen Bremner), Roderick's murderous henchman. Jack is also part of the group. Reaching the Magic Land in the Sky, the little patrol soon makes contact with the legendary nasty Giants that have indeed spent ages pining for the taste of Englishmen. The Alpha Male Giant is General Fallon (Bill Nighy), a mean SOB with two heads (second head: John Kassir). But the conniving Roderick is the real menace. Not only does he order Wicke to slay Elmont's fine Guardians, Roderick is responsible for the whole mess. He broke into the ancient King's tomb and stole the beans that grow the beanstalks that will allow the Giants to descend to Earth. Roderick also has possession of the old King's magic crown, with which he can command the Giants to do his bidding. The traitor bids them to climb down once again, and help him conquer the world!
There's something behind me, isn't there?
Apparently the relatively tame, fairy-tale boundaries of Jack the Giant Slayer weren't the flavor-of-the-week fantasy America wanted to see back in March of this year. Or perhaps the competition was too stiff or the attention span of the bean-brained mass audience was preoccupied elsewhere. Sometimes it's the luck of the draw -- a few seasons back the dismal remake of Clash of the Titans hit the jackpot just by dropping into a perfect gap in the release schedule.
The crazy thing is that there's nothing particularly wrong with Jack the Giant Slayer. It's a perfectly good light entertainment, and perhaps appropriate for kids a bit too young for gorier adult adventure fantasies. The setup is not particularly realistic. Jack and his family are feudal peasants, yet they are literate and have books. They appear to own property. The Princess is the regulation self-empowered New Woman who just wants a little adventure, and to marry for love. The Class System that keeps our Hero Kid on the other side of the tracks from the nobility proves to be no obstacle at all. Jack the Giant Slayer delivers is a nicely paced story with plenty of clever turns of fate and consistent memorable characters, a compliment that even includes two or three gnarly giants.
There's plenty of interest here. Old pal Warwick Davis runs a Panto troupe that plays out the legend of the Good King and the Bad Giants. When Jack is given the beans, they come with a warning: "Whatever you do, don't get them wet." For a moment we wonder if the magic beans will sprout into Gremlins. The monstrous growing beanstalk is quite a construction, snaking up into the clouds like a tower of chlorophyl -- climbing it takes the better part of two days. The Land in the Sky has forests and trees and flocks of sheep; the first encounter with a Giant is pretty unnerving. The violent details are neither avoided nor shoved in our faces, as with the unnecessarily graphic Watchmen. Although plenty of unlucky Guardians get their heads bit off, we can sense that the same won't happen to Isabelle. Yet it's rather creepy to see the valiant Elmont dipped in flour, rolled up in batter and lined up, ready for the oven, next to two identically trussed pigs - Holy Pop 'N' Fresh! And the Giant cook's filthy kitchen habits are the kind of gross-out that shows up in scandalous surveillance camera footage.
Jack the Giant Slayer keeps us interested because the characters are appealing, and arranged in an unexpected pattern. Once we get over Princess Isabelle's Natalie Portman-like smile and her script-mandated Royal Girl Gone Rogue attitude toward life, she becomes an okay dame. Weirdly, her adventurousness mostly involves passively letting the male heroes rescue her. We're surprised when she tilts her bonnet toward Jack and not the more attractive, solid-citizen Elmont. The hero Elmont stands aside while the farm kid gets the hugs and smiles. It's rather humbling -- just a few years back Ewan McGregor was young hero material. Now he's turned forty and must watch as the callow Jack gets the girl. On the plus side, not having to be the doll-baby hero lets McGregor wear a great unruly hunk of hair fit to make any balding man jealous. Elmont is the character that most interests us, and he's stuck with second fiddle duties.
I suppose the producers of Jack the Giant Slayer might fault Nicholas Hoult's failure to attract a worldwide following as the main problem with their film. But I don't think anybody would have wanted them to hire Justin Bieber, even if he would have filled theaters. Hoult looks like a morph between Richard Thomas and Charlie Martin Smith. His Jack isn't really the aggressive type, and he's not even a cocksure Luke Skywalker clone (a type that has dominated teen potency fantasies for nearly forty years). I think Jack violently slays just one Giant (that's all ya need to earn the name) and everything else is just sheer luck. Old Elmont is the one in the trenches doing the heavy combat.
Ian McShane is something interesting in a fairy tale, a responsible King. Old Brahmwell is so ethical, when he determines that the legends are true and his vassals are threatened by Giants, he cuts the beanstalk down even though his own daughter will be marooned somewhere up in the clouds. Stanley Tucci's Roderick is a standard-issue knave, incapable of a kind gesture and only happy when exulting in his crooked powers. The only fault I can see in the character line-up is the way the movie kills off people we really like. Finding likeable characters nowadays is so rare, that they need to be conserved. Roderick is too good of a creep to get rid of, and so is Wicke, his sniveling lackey. It's really criminal to break up the warrior-pal team of Elmont and his sidekick Crawe -- Eddie Marsan makes Crawe a potentially great character. Yes, many of the film's gestures and attitudes are just as anachronistic as the dialogue, rooted directly in the approved modern jargon for teen adventures. But the film's only truly lame line may be an added voiceover: "I'm getting a bad feeling about this!" Somebody bury that line.
I'm not sure we even want the main Giant nemesis General Fallon to bite the dust - he's pretty special too. The special effects of Jack the Giant Slayer use pretty much the whole recipe book of techniques to blend the work of real actors into CG characters, including the latest performance capture & face mapping software. Although they still look computerized -- something about the one-flesh-tone-fits-all design, the optimized eyes -- the Giants are a fun bunch of thugs, big, lumbering, nasty ugly-mugs with serious hygiene issues. And boy, do they love to eat humans! Obviously, the four-year-olds out there are going to be scared by this, just as they might have been by anything rougher than Abbott & Costello's old kiddie musical Jack and the Beanstalk. As an added fun touch, Fallon's top Giant henchmen are named Fee, Fye, Foe and Fumm.
The show keeps its action fairly neat and tidy, just like the pristine greenery around Brahmwell's castle (apparently weeds have yet to be invented). The Giants' assault on the castle concentrates on a battle at a drawbridge and doesn't try for more complications. It all wraps up in appropriate fairy tale terms, the kind that might not charm teen audiences that relish ruthless slaughter and nihilism, as dredged up by the just-completed Batman franchise cycle.
Bottom line: is Jack the Giant Slayer a bad concept because its story is pre-school stuff, but it's content wants to be rated "R"? Audiences didn't go for it as intended. I'm a forgiving audience, I think. The somewhat similar old adventure Krull put me to sleep and the screamingly idiotic Beowulf is one of the few millennial effects fantasies with effects that insult one's intelligence. Like I tried to explain above, on a show like this director Bryan Singer is less of a movie director than an Eisenhower- like Field Marshall, executive-managing battles within battles within a war. The effects effort was surely the same kind of production labyrinth -- how many supervisory eyes must a composite-for-approval shot have to get past before it was forwarded to Singer?
I enjoyed this picture. If I had kids old enough to absorb the (reasonably tame) violent jeopardy scenes, I'd show them Jack without worry. The minutes before the first attack of the Giants generated a smidgen of the nervous feeling I remember the great The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, just before the Cyclops first appeared. Jack the Giant Slayer has its own grace notes. An elaborately scripted and delicately filmed prologue and epilogue structure is built around little kids reading or being read fairy tales. The moral is that the relationship of Legend and Reality is a hazy one, and who always knows what is real and what is not? I'm not sure that idea is communicated well, or that it's even a desirable one. But Jack the Giant Slayer still comes out ahead of the game.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet release of Jack the Giant Slayer looks great. The filmmakers and effects folk have managed to give the many effects scenes the same cool, overcast colors of the live action; a lot of good work went into this show to create images probably appreciated only by other effects experts.
The audio and other technical aspects are par, which for a new film today means virtually flawless. Composer John Ottman's music score doesn't get in the way of the story. He appears to be one of the film's key editors as well.
A 3D combo disc is also available day and date, along with a plain DVD release. With only a three-month gap since it's debut Jack the Giant Slayer may still be playing on a screen somewhere. The lean selection of extras is comprised of nine minutes of deleted scenes and a blooper reel. Both remind us that the majority of the show was filmed on blue screen stages. The main attraction is pretty elaborate: an interactive 'climb the beanstalk' game hosted by Nicholas Hoult. One's Blu-ray remote buttons serve as a game control device.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jack the Giant Slayer Blu-ray rates:
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