I trust Bryan Singer. I trust him because he is a proven director that is leagues ahead of being simply competent in big budget tentpoles or smaller psychological studies. He’s an obviously talented guy who knows how to handle large and sweeping stories. He is most comfortable with myths — the X-Men and Superman are, after all, modern gods — so it makes sense that he would try to tackle a familiar fairy tale using all the tools and experience he’s gained so far, but it comes as a surprise to me that the end product could be so uninspired.
Jack the Giant Slayer is a blend of the classic “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer” stories, and instead of the exaggerated tone of other recent revisionist fairytales like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters it plays everything as a straightforward fantasy. The movie quickly sets up the initial mythology of the ancient giants who once threatened to wipe out humanity and an order of monks who forged a magical crown with the power to command the giants and force them into exile to their barren land in the sky, and then the story of Jack (Nicholas Hoult) – the down-on-his-luck farm boy who acquires magic beans from one of the monks. He soon meets Princess Isabelle of the land of Cloister who is on the run from marrying the dastardly Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci) and the constrained life her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), has reluctantly forced onto her. Before the two star-crossed lovers can flirt any longer Jack mistakenly gets one of the beans wet, causing a massive beanstalk to shoot skyward toward the land of the giants with his house and the Princess along with it.
Brahmwell sends out a rescue party including Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the swashbuckling leader of the king’s guard, Jack, and Roderick who has obvious ulterior motives. Roderick has the magic crown, and seeks to enslave the giants – led by Fallon, the two-headed giant general ridiculously voiced by Bill Nighy– as his own army to gain control of Cloister.
Once the story gets going there’s just too much going on to care about a single story thread. We need to check in with Jack trying to rescue the Princess along with the others in the rescue party, the giants themselves, Roderick’s scheming, and the king and his doubts on the ground. This kind of surface-level storytelling is kind of haphazard and never really lands, especially the character of Jack who you’re meant to sympathize with and root for. He’s the title character for Christ’s sake but he’s unbelievably boring and one-note.
The characters are so simplistic and are never defined past their ultimate mission of saving the girl or saving the kingdom or getting revenge. Also the layering of villains begins to wear on you as the focus shifts between man and giant, and the actual stakes at any given moment are often lost. Yes, on a basic level they need to get the Princess back to the kingdom but they also have to worry about the giants attacking them, and they also have to worry about Roderick trying to double-cross them. But how each turn in the story pans out could have been tightened a bit instead of just unraveling all at once to then try to thread back together.
The movie does an interesting but ultimately unoriginal job of creating its fantasy world, and the broad design inspirations seem patched together without any real cohesion to make the world believable. It’s as if Singer just thought things looked cool so decided to pepper them in because they looked vague enough to belong in a fantasy. Its blatant call backs to the Lord of the Rings films or Star Wars should be clear as day to the kids who make up this movie’s demographic, but instead of building on that familiarity into something new it should bore them as pure pastiche.
The overly used CGI tries to add to the exotic nature of the story, but most of it looks overly cartoonish especially on the giants themselves. The attempt at levels of detail put into the giants makes me think it’s just bad CGI as opposed to lightly cartoonish on purpose, and it all makes me feel like the movie may have been better off 100% animated without the live action bits altogether.
This is Bryan Singer’s most broad movie to date, and also his most overt family film. It sets out to be exactly that, but never really makes the case for being necessary. You can only be simplistic to a point, and though some kids will get caught up in all the expensive stuff up there onscreen I don’t see a real cinematic connection made. It’s lackluster and hollow and full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Singer is going back to what made him famous with X-Men: Days of Future Past as his next film, and I hope Jack the Giant Slayer is only a minor hiccup in his career. He’s usually a talented and passionate filmmaker, but maybe I shouldn’t have trusted him so much since here he seems to not truly care at all.