Hollywood’s race to bring fairy tales to the big screen over the last few years hasn’t had the best results, at least creatively. While “Alice In Wonderland” made a still unbelievable $1 billion worldwide, it simply wasn’t good, and subsequent efforts like “Red Riding Hood,” “Mirror Mirror,” and “Snow White & The Huntsman” brought high concepts and diminished returns. Part of the problem has been an issue of approach, with fairy tale films either choosing to aim for kids, or go dark for tweens, with very little middleground. But that’s a problem screenwriters Christohper McQuarrie, Darren Lemke, and Dan Studney solve with “Jack The Giant Slayer,” a movie that aims for that soft, MOR mainstream audience, but takes its source material and executes its modest ambitions into a satisfying big screen adventure.
But, it doesn’t start off well. Delayed from release last summer to this spring, unfairly or not, the movie does have a certain stigma attached, and the opening makes you wonder why the filmmakers didn’t use this extra time to fix it. We start with young Jack and young Isabelle — one a farmer’s son, the other a princess and heir to the throne — being separately read the story of “Jack & The Beanstalk” which is reimagined as an involved mythology to set up the movie. And this is fine, but the gaudy, cheap animation — which never looks better than a PlayStation 2 cut scene (at best) — used to illustrate the backstory feels like a hasty afterthought, distinctly out of step with the rest of the movie. But it’s no matter. All you need to know is that the world of giants and humans were once connected, and that a magical crown will make whoever wears it the leader of that massive race of creatures, bringing this person immense power. And oh yeah, some magic beans from that bygone era are the only way to re-connect the two worlds. Fine.
So fast forward a decade and mechanics are all set in motion, with sly but not overtly or obnoxiously faithful nods to the old timey tale. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) does indeed go to market, but this time he defends the honor of the now grown Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) — disguised as a commoner — when the concealed princess is harassed by some local ruffians when she's roaming in public outside the castle. But that’s just the start of an eventful day that sees Jack come into possession of the magic beans when a monk steals them from Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the king’s advisor (who is also arranged to be married to Isabelle, much to her dismay), and as he is being chased, gives them hastily as collateral to a reluctant Jack, for the horse he has come to sell, which he uses to escape. Not too long later, Isabelle runs away from home, takes shelter at Jack’s house during a rainstorm, which in turn gets the beans wet, creates the giant stalks, and she gets thrust into the mysterious land in the sky. And all this allows Jack to team up with the King’s men to climb up into the sky and rescue her.
The narrative doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Bryan Singer’s canny moves in the casting department elevate the endeavor into a familiar, but still compelling, well-oiled swashbuckler at its core. Indeed, it’s folks like Ewan McGregor who takes the one-note Elmont, the leader of the King’s army, and turns him into a noble, witty and heroic role model of sorts for Jack. Tucci delivers as always, bringing an appropriate balance of slime and menace as Roderick, while Ewan Bremner is enthusiastically goofy as his henchman. Isabelle is thankfully written as much more than a damsel in distress, playing a young woman coming-of-age in an era when they don’t have much voice, which gives Tomlinson some nice notes to play. And even Ian McShane brings a gravitas a pretty simple part of the widowed King, afraid to lose his only daughter. And finally, coming off “Warm Bodies,” Hoult is emerging as one of the most unassuming leading men out there, and he does a fine job of carrying this film as the aw shucks everyman, thrust into an extraordinary situation.
Structurally, the film is hardly a revelation either, but once again, it’s having a team of experienced folks bring it together that makes it work. Everything moves in a straight line, but Singer keeps the story beats moving fast, with his cast adding color, and his already honed blockbuster sensibilities keeping everything lean and efficient. You already know our heroes will get into trouble, you already know they will escape, and when the false ending arrives, when everything appears wrapped up, you know there is something big just around corner. Singer knows you know this too. So when the movie heads into the final act, with the inevitable grand showdown between the giants and humans, he doesn’t shortchange on what audiences are waiting for. Thus, he creates a big, fiery finale that while not quite spectacular, still raises the expected bar delivering a lengthy battle sequence and siege with real peril and some inventive setpieces, which all wind up effectively dovetailing with Jack and Isabelle’s simple journey. From farmhand to hero, from princess to independent woman, with the pair finding a way to finally be together.
And while as an entertaining two hours, “Jack The Giant Slayer” succeeds, it’s not without its flaws. The bookend sequences are clunky and feel tacked on, as does the requisite wide open swinging door left for a potential sequel. But perhaps most crucially the digital effects leave something to be desired. The giants never quite feel realistic, always on this side of being cartoons, nor is the creature design particularly inventive. Aside from the one or two main giants, they are largely indistinguishable. And though shot in 3D, its use neither adds or subtracts, making it mostly unnecessary — you can see the movie without the glasses just fine. And as the magical crown that controls the giants changes hands among three different people, it means there’s no central villain, and the allegiances among the baddies are both vaguely defined and constantly shifting. One gets the sense they were more fleshed out at one point, but excised along the way. So there is that missing oomph of satisfaction at seeing the bad guy(s) defeated and the hero save the day, that would have come with one main figure pulling the strings.
But ultimately, it’s hard and a bit pointless to nitpick “Jack The Giant Slayer” because it never sets out to be or presents itself as anything more than a slightly beefed up fairy tale. It’s not steroid-sized, it doesn’t dabble in dark undertones or make concessions to young kids (aside from a few grossout gags) — it aims squarely for the middle, and hits it with a bullseye. Bryan Singer’s film is almost old fashioned in its simple furnishings, with sly humor and accomplished but never outsized action, and there is a certain charm to that in an era when bigger is equated with better. It isn’t a blockbuster that will change the game, and hell, it likely won’t even be remembered twelve months from now. But anyone buying a ticket will get the good time they’re paying for, and particularly during a dreary 2013 at the multiplex so far, that’s something that can be said about few films. [B-]