Jack the Giant Slayer, a retelling of the fairy tale typically known by the far less macho-sounding Jack and the Beanstalk or Jack and the Magic Beans, opens with a lengthy assault of noise (aural and visual) and clumsy computer-generated imagery. The movie feels so much like a video game that your fingers instinctively itch to do something, though a Jack video game isn’t one we’d really want to play. That’s sort of fitting for a fairy tale that always felt like the B-side of Red Hiding Hood; a tale of agriculture gone awry was not nearly as captivating as a wolf in grandma’s bed.
Director Bryan Singer’s movie seems unlikely to transform Jack into an A-lister, despite a star–filled cast that includes Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci and as well as Warm Bodies star Nicholas Hoult in the title role. It does improve after the initial assault, with a few scenes reminiscent of the comic vibe of The Princess Bride and story elements that could have been inspired by the brilliant chapter of C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, where Eustace and Jill are almost turned into meat pies by giants. But the very capacity of today’s technology, enabling Singer to build enormity of scale through special effects, can pummel the heart out of a story. And that’s what happens here. The imposing scale of the giants (and the beanstalk itself) might terrify children—my kid, presumably a member of the film’s intended audience, found the trailer so disturbing I opted not to bring him. And there’s such an artificiality to the whole enterprise that the humans themselves almost seem digital, as if they’ve been Polar Express-ed.
Nicholas Hoult, who starred in X-Men: First Class, produced by Singer, plays Jack, the dreamy farm boy who screws up when he’s sent to sell a horse and comes back with a handful of beans. (They’re magic, of course.) Hoult is about the most interesting thing in the movie, although perhaps not for the right reasons. He spent part of his formative years in the company of Hugh Grant, his adult costar in About a Boy. They seemed like very different types then, the aging pretty boy and the actual boy, who was weird and hostile and looked that way. In this movie, Hoult seems like he’s Grant’s adult son. I don’t mean to suggest that this is always the case, or a limiting factor for Hoult in general; in last month’s Warm Bodies and in A Single Man he was very much his own man. But here, he sounds almost exactly like Grant, replicating not just that self-effacing charm, but the actual stammering tone. It’s disconcerting; you expect him to push back his forelock at any moment. Instead, he pulls up his medieval hoodie.
There’s a princess, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a rebellious redhead like Brave’s Merida (“princess is such a useless thing” she sighs) who doesn’t want to marry the oily and devious Roderick (Tucci), a suitor her father (Ian McShane) approves of. When the beanstalk explodes into the sky like a green tornado in reverse, thicker than the greatest Sequoia, and filled with more braids and twists than a factory full of Red Vines, Isabelle is carried aloft with it. The screenplay, assembled by too many well-paid scribes to name here, adds a new but rather dull wrinkle in the form of a long-standing feud between the giants who live in the sky and Isabelle’s forefathers. The question is, can Jack, working alongside the trusty knight Elmont (McGregor, delightful as usual, but stuck in a minor role), climb the beanstalk and rescue Isabelle before the giants descend to wreak havoc on the kingdom?
In the fairy tale, Jack meets and outsmarts a giant and his wife, emerging from the sky with untold wealth but no love interest, good, since he’s a child. Here there be giants, many of them, all hideous, male and covered in ropey muscles. They are rather unengaging company, as CG–creatures tend to be. Their leader, voiced by Bill Nighy, has two heads—the smaller of which looks like Gollum—but talks like the “Wassup!“ guys from that old beer commercial. There’s no grossness about them left unturned, from their poor dental hygiene to their flatulence. It’s one thing when the giant in charge of cooking picks his nose and adds it the pigs-in-a-blanket dish he’s working on (real pigs, plus McGregor)
— a yuck that turns the stomach. But when Wassup & Co. have a bad encounter with a burning moat, the sense that the flesh is baking off him/them/it is incredibly vivid; it’s like peering into a pot of boiling chicken stock and having the carcass roar up at you in agony. Obviously, you want your children of fairy-tale–age to experience that.
In this era of movie technology, the post-Lord of the Rings years, virtually every kind of fearsome creature can be made entirely out of whole cloth. But must they be? Jack the Giant Slayer is rated PG-13 and so were Snow White and the Huntsman and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. These are appropriate ratings for the films in question, all of which co-opt children’s stories for older audiences (or audiences that should be older). Something about Singer’s take on Jack and the Beanstalk made me think of George Mallory’s famous utterance about feeling compelled to climb Mt. Everest. “Because it is there,” he explained. The technology is undeniably there to make a credible beanstalk fly into the heavens, and giants that are utterly grotesque and vividly threatening. But how about something we can take our kids too? Doesn’t anyone want them to be there?