Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Cinema File #140: "Jack The Giant Slayer" Review

I am a fan of fairy tales. I've talked about this before on my blog, specifically in terms of my love of giants in a fantasy context, and I recently spent several months developing and writing the first draft of a television pilot set amid the world of The Brothers Grimm. Among my colleagues on the podcast I record every week where we do nothing but pitch ideas for movies, I'm pretty much the resident fantasy/fairy tale guy always pushing pitch themes in that direction, and if an episode goes by where I can't work in a reference to The Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, than I feel like I haven't done my job. The past few years have not been good to my ilk, with not one but two television series trying and failing to capture the dark whimsy of those old stories, and a recent spate of similar movies with a lot of potential, and very poor execution. All of this led me to walk into Jack The Giant Slayer (formerly Killer) a bit hesitant, but thankfully, while I definitely think it could have been a lot better, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I didn't hate this movie.

The story is a modern action fantasy retelling of the classic tale of the same name, crossed with the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, because if I remember correctly, the original Jack The Giant Killer had very little plot beyond a little dude just murdering the hell out of some giants. Here we have some new stuff like a magic giant enslaving crown and a cult of monks protecting magic beans, but for the most part its faithful enough to the spirit of what its adapting, and uses the fairytale setting as an excuse for some mostly family friendly violence and adventure. While one should always judge every film on its own merits, I can't help but compare this one to the last few fairy tale movies, and invariably it always comes out looking so much better. It doesn't take itself too seriously like Snow White and the Huntsman, but also doesn't descend into self aware camp nearly as much as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. It manages to find a healthy middle ground that in tone reminded me of the 80's fantasy adventure films of my youth, only mildly diminished by the overabundance of some rather hokey CGI.

About that, if you'll permit me a brief rant, the beginning of this film bothered me, so much so that I was about ready to consign the whole thing to rubbish until it started to gradually win me over again. The film begins with an extended exposition sequence detailing the mythical past of this world and the first time humans and giants met across the beanstalk, which is all perfectly fine, except that it is done in the style of a stop motion animated piece, with characters resembling wooden figures out of a Rankin Bass production. When I say this, I don't mean that I don't like this style, as I would have very much enjoyed it had it been done right, but the problem is , it isn't done in stop motion, but in the style of stop motion, as created by the worst computer effects I've seen since the Malbolgia scene in Spawn. You know what would have been much more effective and much cheaper for a puppet-inspired sequence?...Puppets! Why use CGI, especially if its going to be this bad, to approximate another medium much more in keeping with the dark fantasy tone you're trying to achieve? Okay, sorry, rant over.

Beyond that, once the action gets going I felt that Jack The Giant Slayer was pretty fun for the most part. Being able to speak in more than grunts and not looking like a big blue cat out of Grant Morrison's wet dreams, Nicholas Hoult brings a nervous energy to the role of the unlikely hero that carries the character through without getting annoying or unbelievable, and I was even able to buy the obligatory whirlwind romance between him and the Disney-esque independently minded princess a little more than usual. Stanley Tucci plays a backstabbing villain he's played a thousand times, but a little more menacing and less goofy than he normally does, and the giants themselves, while somewhat indistinct as a group save the two headed leader, were better bad guys then I expected given the seemingly deliberate choice to make them more cartoonish than physically scary. Special mention must go to Ewan McGregor, who embraces the silliness of the whole affair with gusto, playing a sardonic swordsman like he's in the much belated sequel to The Princess Bride, which can only be to the film's advantage.

The film goes by very quickly, or seems to at least, with the three acts clearly demarcated by different locations and set pieces that left me with the impression that a lot of the action could have been given more time to breathe. The story being told isn't so complex that they needed to rush through it so much, and as a result some of the elements, especially the culture of the giants and the humans who live in fear of them, are underdeveloped. I would have liked to see what a medieval society would be like if it actively had to defend itself against a supernatural force like giants, specifically in how it would be different from the one we know, rather than one that treats their history as a fictional account until it bites them back so many years later. As for the giants, it very much feels like since their initial invasion was repelled in the opening flashback, they've all just been sitting in a cave waiting for another beanstalk to grow so they have an excuse to say Fee Fie Foe Fum in a menacing tone. Also, it ends on a strange note that tries to connect the events of the story with the real world, but this seems completely unnecessary, done at the expense of a more conclusive epilogue.

Still, the action of Jack The Giant Slayer is engaging enough and it never strives pointlessly to try to be anything more than it sets out to be, namely shameless glossy popcorn adventure. I can see why many would need more (though box office returns of late suggest most people don't), but for me, it was for whatever its worth a solid night out at the movies. It still might not be the great fairy tale adaptation I've been waiting for, but especially in light of the recent competition, its certainly good enough for now.

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