It’s difficult at this point for a revisionist, large-scale cinematic fairy tale to stand out. The latest, Jack The Giant Slayer, comes on the heels of a two-year flood of similar fare, from Beastly, Red Riding Hood, Snow White And The Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters on the big screen to Grimm and Once Upon A Time on TV. And all of them follow a wave of fantasy children’s-book adaptations (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Bridge To Terabithia, the Narnia movies, etc.) which themselves followed in the footsteps of the billion-dollar Lord Of The Rings juggernauts. At this point, CGI battle fatigue has set in, and the latest set of angry polished pixels doesn’t look much different than the last.
Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns) and his three credited screenwriters seem to be trying to distinguish Jack from the last few years’ worth of fable-movies by emphasizing thrilling adventure over angsty, pained romance; their film is closer to Willow (or, going back further, to an Errol Flynn movie) than to Twilight. And they pay attention to smaller details in characterization, adding some unusual personal touches to their broad archetypes. But the little details don’t have enough impact on the big picture, which is practically a templated action-fantasy.
The film’s animated opening lays out its mythology: Long ago, giants threatened to overrun and devour humanity, until the overreaching monks responsible for the giants’ incursion forged a magical crown and used its powers to exile the giants in their rocky, barren sky kingdom. Some of the film’s best touches come in the way this story is framed as a largely disbelieved fairy tale that the eponymous farm-boy Jack and his kingdom’s princess each encounter separately in childhood. Their reactions to the story vary, but the way they respond equally to its implied adventure and scares bonds them in the viewers’ eyes long before they meet, while also suggesting the way common mythology—like the “Jack And The Beanstalk” story, for instance—culturally connects so many people with little else in common.
But once the real story gets underway, it falls into familiar territory. A decade after the intro, the teenage Jack (Nicholas Hoult, fresh from Warm Bodies) accidentally acquires some magic beans. He also meets the princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) and they share a “Hey, we’re both young and pretty, should we date or something?” moment before one of the beans gets wet and erupts into a gigantic stalk that carries Tomlinson into the clouds. Her father (Deadwood’s Ian McShane) arrives to investigate, and Hoult joins his rescue party, helmed by captain of the guard Ewan McGregor, and including scheming noble Stanley Tucci and his goofy lackey, Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner. As it turns out, Tucci has the magical crown and is out to enslave the giants as his personal army, which doesn’t sit well with an ambitious, arrogant two-headed-giant general voiced by Bill Nighy.
There are a lot of threads at work in Jack The Giant Slayer, and the most intriguing ones kick against familiar tropes. Hoult is an atypically awkward protagonist who humbly steps aside when other heroes want to take on tasks above his experience level. McGregor’s character (who seems awfully close to the actor’s previous take on Young Ben Kenobi) is surprisingly generous and good-hearted, rather than the usual smug elitist who needs to be convinced to respect his new commoner friend. Tucci has a complicated, ambitious plan in place, but the movie skips past most of it to get to the part that matters, where it all goes awry. The giants have their own personalities and politics to contend with, making them more than a homogeneous, generic force of evil.
But this is all little more than pleasantly textured window-dressing in a mighty familiar large-scale battle pitching CGI giants against fragile, unfortunately edible mankind. Jack fleshes out the fable with plenty of excuses for action, but fails to give its leads much personality; Hoult is little more than a sweet smile pasted over some determination, and Tomlinson is nothing more than a McGuffin to rescue over and over. (There’s a nice modern touch in that opening where her mother encourages her to get out and find enough adventure to make her a smarter, more experienced queen, but in spite of the film’s repeated “Girls can adventure too!” message, she still grows up brave, bold, and completely ineffectual.) Their romance, such as it is, could hardly be less interesting or less nuanced. And most of the other characters don’t get enough screen time to assert themselves as anything other than broad types.
More to the point, the film spends a great deal of its focus on fights that stretch out to Lord Of The Rings length, but without LOTR-level effects or panache. The climactic battle has its terrifying moments, particularly when the 3-D cameras look down on foreshortened human warriors from a giant’s perspective, but much of it feels redundant with a dozen earlier films. And while some of the characters have enough depth to be surprising when they’re actually talking and interacting, everyone—human and giant alike—just becomes a generic cipher during the long fights that follow. The extra shading is nice, but it doesn’t change the degree to which Jack The Giant Slayer feels like a paint-by-numbers story.