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.
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
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
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
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
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
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jack the Giant Killer rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 13, 2004
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?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson