When you think about it, it's kind of funny that traveling the middle of the road has become the cliché for the "safe" option. Because if you're in your car and you position yourself to take a straight line down the center of the highway, a terrible crash is sure to come.
While Jack the Giant Slayer, the latest from X-Men and Usual Suspects-director Bryan Singer, doesn't exactly turn into the cinematic equivalent of a multi-car pile-up, it does suffer from trying too hard to be centrist, to maintain a position between two different things, and ends up not being as good as it should be for it. What Singer has come up with is a big-screen fairy tale, a throwback to classic family movies of yesteryear--and at the same time, not. Because this PG-13-rated adventure film also tries to play it smarter than it needs to, slipping occasionally into metafictional jokes and even a little bit of CGI gore, stuff that suggests that maybe Singer and his writers (which include Suspects and Valkyrie scribe Christopher McQuarrie) wanted to do some kind of high-minded update of the genre, like a Marvel Comics version of a Grimm Fairy Tale. What we get is something that is neither/nor and either/or.
Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, Warm Bodies) plays the titular Jack, a young farmboy in nursery-rhyme England who grew up hearing the stories of how Erik the Great vanquished the terrible giants that wanted to destroy humanity and banished them to their home in the sky. The preamble that informs us of this is so long and tedious, that by the time it's over, you will feel like you grew up with it, too. Jack the Giant Slayer grows front-heavy with a lot of set-up. After we get the lowdown on Erik and his magic crown and his magic beans, we still have to meet the current King (Deadwood's Ian McShane) and his daughter Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson, The Illusionist), a princess who dreams of independence. She is, of course, to be married to the gruesome Roderick (Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games), because in these stories the King always promises his daughter to the villain. On one of her wanderings, Isabelle bumps into Jack, who falls for her immediately, only to see her whisked away by Elmont (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge), the knight assigned to be her bodyguard.
It's also that day that Erik's magic beans are stolen from the palace, only to end up in Jack's hands. One thing leads to another, and Jack has inadvertently regrown the bean stalk, opening the connection between Earth and Gantua, the kingdom of the giants, and gotten Isabelle stranded up their with the sworn enemies of her ancestors. An expedition is sent to rescue her, and from there eventually all hell will break loose.
Emphasis on "eventually." Jack the Giant Slayer is nearly two-hours long, and it takes close to 3/4 of that time to get really good. Once the giants finally come back down the beanstalk and the battle begins, you're in for a treat. Singer's team of computer animators and effects people go to town, and the results are exciting and fun. The designs for the giant characters, as well as both Gantua and Cloister, the ostentatious castle where King Brahmwell rests his crown, are spectacular. Every detail is meticulously layered in and thought through, down to each individual nose hair. There are even the occasional forced perspective shots and come-at-you moments to remind you that you may be watching this in 3D. (I'd say about 85% of the time you won't even notice.)
Up until the big attack, however, Jack the Giant Slayer is a middling hodge-podge of some good individual scenes that never really cohere. Again, this comes down to a problem of tone. Is this an ages-old fairy tale dusted off for the digital future? (History is told in rhyme but made to look like a video game!) Is it a goofy kids movie with bad jokes and silly stunts? (A giant picks his nose! Ewan McGregor fights with a knife in his mouth!) Or is it something just this side of Snow White and the Huntsman, aware of some of its inherent darkness, but afraid to embrace it? (Watch this guy get crushed underfoot! Is that a symbol of man's hubris?!)
My gut is that Singer wanted to err on the second option, the one in the middle, and go for a kind of "Wonderful World of Disney" phantasmagoria, never forgetting that children like things to be gross and adults kind of do, too, and so maybe if we see a head explode and an eyeball pop out, kids of all ages will think it's cool. In that, he's right, it was pretty cool. I just wish there was more of those (pun! look out!) eye-popping moments to really make Jack the Giant Slayer something to look at. The movie needed to be less self-conscious about its juvenile indulgences. It needed to be more excited about the crazy happenings rattling the edges of the frame.
Because what Jack the Giant Slayer really lacks is a sense of wonder. It's a story where people who have ceased believing in fairy tales come to realize that the myths of their childhood are real, and yet when confronted with dreams made flesh, they just shrug them off. It's as if all of them are as jaded with monsters and gods as most of us are about computer-generated special effects. It's all well and good that many different effects houses working around the clock for several months can make just about anything appear on a movie screen, but how are we supposed to surrender to the illusion if the people in the movie don't succumb to the spectacle themselves?