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The climbing of the beanstalk… an age-old metaphor or something.

This is one I don’t think many people had high hopes for. I figure the best anyone could conjure was “it looks sort of fun” and it was on that premise, along with the having of a nine year old daughter who loves princesses, that I saw Jack the Giant Slayer in spite of my better judgment. Unlike the other recent 2013 fantasy movie, Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters, there are no surprises to be had in Jack. No self-awareness, no arch commentary on fairy tales and the movies we make from them, and so on. But that said, Jack is a movie made for kids not for adults who used to be kids that watched movies like Jack. Comparing Hansel & Gretel to Jack is unfair, so don’t go into this expecting it to be much fun on that level.

Instead, think of Jack the Giant Slayer as a slightly more competent John Carter because they are basically the same type of movie. Jack, whatever bad you might say about its lack of imagination, shitty art direction, and horrible coda, is an eminently competent film. There’s not a single wasted scene in this movie, with everything functioning exactly as straightforwardly and uninterestingly as possible. Unlike other more or less commercial exploitations of our culture’s current love affair with the fantastical, Jack the Giant Slayer does not let distractions or ego get in the way of its thorough commitment to mediocrity.

So basically what I’m saying is that Jack isn’t as bad as it looked. It’s not as bad as more discerning viewers would assume (even as kids’ movies go). But it is still only “okay” in the most generous possible sense, and it has some glaring problems that make it worth the critique at all. So maybe it’s actually quite bad. I’m not even sure anymore.

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Ian… why do you do this to us all?

One of the reasons I compare this to John Carter as opposed to, say, Snow White and the Huntsman, is that this is an example for why lazy storytelling is bad for kids. Whatever we might say about Snow White and the Huntsman, it fucking tried.

This criticism is what makes it even possible to approach something like Jack as a real movie. It, unlike John Carter really, doesn’t aspire to much adult sophistication. It is basically on par with a low-end Disney movie in terms of having anything like a theme for grown-ups to potentially chew on. It’s main thrust is as simple as it comes: Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) are similarly unhappy with the confines of their existence and seek “adventure” in the pretend-mythical (more on this later) kingdom of Cloister. Cloister lays in Albion, which some people will note is another name for the Britain, and it’s about as generic a fantasy kingdom as can be limply imagined.

Anyways, we are treated to a bizarrely poor CG storybook prologue which seems like it wants to riff on Hellboy 2 or something, but fails miserably. The effects here are on par with Playstation One era FMV sequences, I shit you not. Making the characters look vaguely wooden does not grant an artsy aesthetic, but rather brings to attention the unfinished state of the aesthetic style of the sequence. It’s just very bad looking and functions as a sort of extreme prelude to all the pretty bad CG effects in this movie. For serious, they are bad.

The prologue sets up our parallel between Jack and Isabelle. It also sketches some lazy, obligatory backstory for the giants and Cloister’s age-old relationship with them. Their land in the sky has faded into memory, but Jack accidentally gets involved in a plot by Rodrick (Stanley Tucci, hamming it up) to use them to take control of the kingdom. Or something. We know because of shorthand that Tucci’s character is the villain and he is actually about as evil-seeming as this PG-serious movie will let him be (almost all of the violence is awkwardly cut). That said, his plan makes little sense because no information is given about his role in the kingdom or why he wants it… except that he’s to marry Isabelle and become King anyway but apparently this isn’t enough for him? Whatever.

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The movie too often misses opportunities to exhibit the grandeur of the key visual concepts: giants and beanstalks and worlds in the sky.

Being that Isabelle is a young rebellious princess, she clashes with her more traditional father (Ian McShane for some reason) who wants her protected and CLOISTERED! SEE WHAT I DID!?

Ahem.

Her issue is vaguely about marrying for love, being her own person, etc. All stuff you saw more completely in Disney films, or explored in a much more sophisticated manner in last year’s Brave. See, this being a kids’ movie, ostensibly, is no fucking excuse. Jack has an even vaguer still hand-waving motive: he wants to get out and see the world. Or something. It doesn’t matter anyway because giants. And he’s a brave, good-hearted guy who deserves to get the girl even though he’s not a warrior or noble.

Isabelle ends up a damsel in distress, kidnapped by giants after a beanstalk goes awry. Teaming up with Elmont (a swashbuckling, fun-having Ewan McGregor) and some Guardians to climb up the stalk and rescue her. So much for being an independent, capable young woman ready for big adventures. This beanstalk climbing bit is fun, kind of, because it’s unique. I’ve never seen a movie where a bunch of dudes climb a beanstalk for days. There are a couple of nice spots of visual grandeur here, including one all-too-brief moment of Jack appreciating the awe of the literal heights he’s reached.

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Then we get giants.

The world of the giants is a lush, beautiful place. A movie more focused on eliciting wonder in its audience would have spent a great deal more time with that aspect. Instead, the movie is in its economic rush through the plot, checking all the lame character boxes along the way. Up in Gantua, the land of giants, all hell breaks loose. Rodrick gets control of the giants using an ancient magical crown, and Jack and Elmont barely manage to save poor Isabelle who is stuck in a cage.

The giants themselves represent some of the lingering issues for this movie. They are mostly anonymous, with only four “characters” emerging from the spotty-CG and generic-rabble style of these creatures. They have names like Fee, Fi, Fo and Fum. Some of these giants fart, eat boogers, etc as if this is a Michael Bay movie. Others are downright offensive. Take the central giant pictured above. This is the only one with this type of face. It looks like a big giant Charlie Bronson had babies with one each of an Inuit and a hominid and then those babies produced this fucking guy. I don’t know why I find this offensive, but I think there’s something about this guy’s facial features that suggest more than “caveman”. He looks a bit too aboriginal, and he’s evil, so it’s like… what? Especially since everybody, and I mean everybody, in this movie is as white as gluesticks and none of the other giants evoke this sort of prehistoric/aboriginal look.

But really, he’s not that big of a deal. It’s too vague to be properly offensive on the grounds of egregious stupidity. Worse is the very Bay-ian General Fallon (Bill Nighy for crying out loud), or more particularly General Fallon’s Small Head (actual credit, played by some poor sap named John Kassir). Fallon is the feared two-headed leader of the giants. His second head is a retard and suddenly it’s like I’m back in third grade with that one Downs kid pop culture teaches us to ridicule and ostracize while our teachers try to remind us of everybody’s supposed humanity. In other words, Fallon is a character that puts us back to a place where the mentally challenged are to be laughed at, if not feared. The Goonies should have fixed us of this trope forever, but no. To say that I dislike the presence of an evil retarded giant head in a kids’ movie is to put it mildly. This has no place here if it’s going to be used as cheaply and transparently as it is in Jack the Giant Slayer. I mean, the fuck were they even thinking?

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The Small Head can’t even talk, it just sits there making gurgling sounds and looking around all wide-eyed.

Now that the giants have a potential way back to Albion through Rodrick and his beanstalks, they are bent on invasion even though they got the boot last time and even though they have no better motivation than that they like to eat people. Seriously. I have to respect a kids’ movie where the villains are evil only because they are cannibals (though they only seem interested in eating heads) and just wanna get to snacking. Of course, this vital source of conflict is largely glossed over and you’re left with the impression that giants simply = bad.

Anyway, the movie kicks into full on fantasy warfare mode (because they all have to have this shit post-The Lord of the Rings) with the armored giants trying to lay siege to Cloister’s opulent castle. It’s a pretty nicely designed castle, and apparently super defensible even against giants. More prepared than you’d think for a culture that forgot their adversaries even exist, Cloister is able to pretty competently defend itself.

Mostly this comes down to its magical drawbridge. Now the magic of the drawbridge is subtle. The movie never acknowledges it, there’s now glowy or flashy magical effects, and none of the characters seem to think of it as anything extraordinary at all. Of course, the reason why it’s magic is that it holds together during a tug-of-war the giants and humans have over it, each using grappling hooks and whatnot to try and get control of it. If the giants get it down, they’ll rush in, if the defenders can keep it up than the archers and ballistae can continue to give the giants a hard time. It’s a pretty clear and pretty important battlefield asset!

Oh who am I kidding. The movie’s big battle scene devolves into a giant (literally) tug of war that completely shatters suspension of disbelief and leaves it whimpering in the corner while this movie pulls its pants back up.

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There are 4-5 completely different design profiles for the various armsmen and knights in this movie. Only one is good, the rest are bush league. Cosplay does it better.

This is the kind of movie that cynical film buffs mean when they talk about how utterly beyond redemption “Hollywood” is. This is the blockbuster mutant that relies completely on aggregate trends, journeymen directors like Bryan Singer who haven’t made a good movie in years if ever, and a “hot” cast of old reliables and young up-n-comers. Mix in some flashing vestigial swords, the kind of armor and clothing design you’d see in a 70’s anime and blend until a frothy white foam of “fuck this” bubbles to the surface.

Kids deserve better. And if I can be selfish for a minute, so do we adults who get dragged to movies like Jack the Giant Slayer because our kids are still wide-eyed or we’re so easy that movies like this still even get made.

I mean, this is barely its own movie. It’s competent in purely mechanical terms, yes, and this makes it objectively “okay”. The trouble is that it coasts on cliche and regurgitates tropes like it’s about to go parody at any point but never does. This point really comes to a head during the atrocious epilogue.

See, this whole time all these events were actually English history and the crown that controls giants was melted down and refashioned into the heirloom (goofy as fuck) crown that to this day sits in a museum or something. Enter a little creep with the same teeth as Stanley Tucci’s character (this guy and fucking teeth) and you’ve got a ridiculous notion that all this shit happened at some unknown point in history and the giants are still up there. Is this supposed to be funny? It isn’t. Is it supposed to threaten something? I think an RPG or two would take care of barely Iron Age giants, you fuckers. It best not be threatening a sequel. Ain’t nobody got time for that shit.

It’s really about a cutesy message for the kids: this could have really happened. It’s nonsense and it makes me mad that there’s an idea that this is fun for kids let alone the adults who are just going to be like well fuck that.

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“Tut-tut. You should have known better, Evan.”

I guess I really turned on this movie in the process of writing the review. That happens sometimes. You kind of hope that processing your thoughts and criticisms of a film will wind up forging a new and lasting appreciation for it, but that can’t happen with chaff.

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