As we step ever-nearer to X-Men: Days of Future Past, we need to establish where Bryan Singer is. His previous feature-film Valkyrie received mixed reviews, while Superman Returns ended the franchise completely – giving way to this years Man of Steel. In that regard, it has been a neat ten years since he has directed a film that has been championed by fans – X2. Indeed, X-Men, unto itself, opened the door to the multi-billion dollar industry of “Comic Book Movies” – and, specifically, the “darker” comic book films. Prior to X-Men, Comic-book films were little more than strange, quirky films for nerds – but now, because of Bryan Singer, they are so much more. The question lingers awkwardly over Jack the Giant Slayer: Does Singer work his magic and reinvent the fairy-tale genre?
Jack and the Beanstalk
We know the story: Jack sells his cow for beans, he plants the beans and it turns into a beanstalk. Jack climbs the beanstalk to find a giant. Jack The Giant Slayer combines the popular fairytale with the “older and darker” Jack the Giant Killer. Jack the Giant Slayer is released following the success of previous fairytale instalments Snow White and the Huntsman and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – both Jack and the latter film released in 3D. This fairytale trend seems to capitalise on a known property (we all know the story…) and, I assume, the parents who seek to take their children to watch a story they may have told to them before bed.
This particular version includes an opening that involves a monk riding a horse and Warwick Davies amongst a group of actors re-enacting the story of Giants. Our hero, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) joins a group of Knights – dubbed “The Guardians” – including Ewan McGregor and Eddie Marsan (a far cry from the brutal roles he has played in Tyrannosaur and This is England ’86) to save a damsel in distress, Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), from the world of Giants that Jack unwittingly creates a link between. It emerges (in the opening moments of the film) that these Giants were banished to the world above by humans after we took hold of a crown – created by the heart of Giants – that controls them. In Gantua, the Giants have been angry and stewed for hundreds of years … ready to re-emerge when the opportunity arises. With Jack’s help, it does – and Royal figures are ready to take advantage of this opportunity as controlling Giants means that they could control earth itself.
But it is an unwieldy story that struggles to comfortably make the jump from book to screen. I could even argue that the beauty of these stories is within the childhood wonder you have when first hearing them; you imagine the world and beasts that are described. The simple story of Jack and the Beanstalk is equally clear in its moral tale – as it is in the ambiguity of the fantasy-locations. What do the giants look like? Some children imagine them as tall as skyscrapers – some may imagine them as merely tall people. The beanstalk – is it slimy and slippery like the vines that creep out of a lake? or are they dry and dusty? Singer decides to define these details in a mixed hot-pot of styles and fashions. Characters wear hats from the 1920’s and Jack dons a leather jacket … but, of course, the medieval Lord of the Rings action sequences hark back to the Middle-Ages.
Because of this eclectic mix, the film simply doesn’t ring true and, though children may thoroughly enjoy the amalgamation of time-periods and fashions, as an adult it has a strange unbalanced tone. Tim Burton, despite his narrative inconsistencies, always seems to balance the tone – creating Gothic worlds that naturally and organically connect to each other; Bryan Singer’s town of Cloister and land of Gantua fail to convince. Technically, he nods towards Jurassic Park as plodding footsteps are heard in a lush rainforest as it rains heavily – and akin to the T-Rex in The Lost World, we inevitably see a limp body stuck to the base of a scaly foot as a Giant tramples on a human. Even the half-Gollum, half-“Ed” (the crazy Hyena from The Lion King) additional head on Giant (Bill-Nighy-voiced) Fallon goes against the horrific character deaths – silly characters and gore-filled deaths – younger children may dislike the gore; older children may dislike the silliness.
For the Kids
Despite these uneven elements, assuming the gore isn’t taken to heart, younger children will like the film. Fantasy, simplicity in story-telling, an epic finale and quirky characters. Children, for better of worse, love a good fart-joke and they love a gooey, slimey bogey pulled from a giants nose – so an adult-criticism seems void when the audience this film is made for will clearly enjoy it. It’s not as profound as a Pixar film, and it lacks the modernism of a Marvel superhero film – but it is a tale children understand. Bryan Singer has not created a masterpiece and nor has he reinvented the genre – he has simply made a film that exploits all the trends that, in fairness, children seem to be interested in. Singer hasn’t dropped the ball on this; he just lacks passion. Little more than a footnote in a biography, Jack the Giant Slayer is merely a manufactured children’s film that will be forgotten within a year. In the hands of Bryan Singer, it is an acceptable children’s film – but he needs to be more selective when he chooses projects in future.
Written/Originally published for Flickering Myth on 21 March 2013