(following this review is my preview of the film, which includes information about the production and marketing of the film, and some notes on the film’s major players.)
The biggest shame about Jack the Giant Slayer is that, very possibly, no one will go to see it. Poorly timed in early March, after the Oscars, before the Spring push, stuck in a quagmire of mediocre films, and one measly week before Oz (a much more recognizably loved brand), it’s tough to imagine many people will venture out to see a children’s fairytale. But if you think this is some watered down, molly coddling kiddie flick, you don’t know Jack. This version has a lot more to it than a guy who makes a bad trade, and climbs a beanstalk.
WARNING: this film earns every inch of its title, and the PG-13 rating. Children with delicate sensibilities should not be brought. For any child under 13, you need to
seriously understand your child’s maturity and comprehension of fictional violence,
as this film gets very intense. While the most brutal, close up deaths (killings, really) occur just off screen, many, many deaths do occur, and from an amazing array of methods. Many (not all) on screen deaths take care to obscure the actual weapon, but the fact that it happens is all too clear, and the bodies of dead are shown, as well as heaps of skulls, furniture made from bones, etc. Set design is excellent, so expect a lot of detail in the tombs as well as the terrazzo.
Jack the Giant Slayer leans much more heavily Grimm than fairytale, and while that means excluding little ones from attending, it does make the film a lot more watchable for the rest of any potential audience. When (Director) Bryan Singer took over, he paused and took some time to rethink the film, and it’s benefited viewers tremendously. Family films are extremely hard to make entertaining while appealing to the entire family. Before anyone condemns the violence, remember Bambi isn’t all sunshine and roses either.
Hoult, Tucci, Tomlinson, Marsan, McGregor – the cast throw themselves into their roles. The violence, the drama, the actors – this story has been taken completely seriously. This gives a sense of weight which, along with such a charismatic cast, makes it easy to care about what happens to them. It should be noted there are many moments of charm and absurd, if not
morbid, humor. Situational comedy is sprinkled in ever so slightly for a bit more levity. The story has been developed surprisingly well. A real adventure takes place, back-story has been filled in, and clever book-ending lends authenticity to the fairytale format. This is not to say the story is original. It’s a straightforward and familiar fairytale, realized as a full scale motion picture adventure. Singer deserves praise for his ability to take small scenes, or very simple devices, and using them for maximum dramatic impact. Take a guy, a tree, a pond, and one giant, and it becomes a nightmarish game of hide and seek.
The writing is often quite good, not just in terms of fashioning a sufficiently compelling story, but also in giving every character intelligent things to say. Jack wants to be a hero but he’s genuinely afraid, and admires the princess but he’s bound by conventions of class. It was nice to see McShane given significant screen time. Many of his appearances in big American films are brief.
Tomlinson’s screen time nearly equals Hoult’s, and while that’s a positive, one big disappointment is that Isabelle doesn’t seem to have much to do, except to be saved. This is redeemed somewhat by her constant admonishments to anyone who will listen that princesses should have more to do than to stand around looking pretty. Actually, it’s that determination of hers that sparks the whole adventure – so some kudos to the writers for that. Supporting characters are also given screen time and dialogue, so you get a sense of who they are before they get thrown off a cliff, or impaled, or squashed, or cooked, or … you get the idea. And while the story isn’t exactly original, people don’t just debate, or provide exposition, but contemplate choices and weigh consequences.
The beginning of the final battle, its timing and choreography build like a rousing symphony. Peter and the Wolf, or Mountain King, or 1812 – something like that. It starts with anticipation, and then a small surge, which escalates a bit more, and a bit more, and then finally explodes into chaos with a jolt.
The final battle incorporates many effects, and notably includes a lot more real people than CGI. Most major battles in movies these days include long shots of entire cgi armies. Jack thankfully uses lots of actual people, and a variety of weapons and scenes, to make the battle seem truly massive.
Jack the Giant Slayer was originally scheduled for a Summer 2012 release, and is solid enough that it could have competed in that frame. It doesn’t make much sense to be positioned now, but the explanation has been that the effects needed retooling. Visually, the film is very good, if not excellent. 3D is often used with pop and flair, especially in action sequences and to create dizzying aerial views, but is otherwise toned down to allow the dramatic and tender scenes to flow organically. Sets are grand, and perspective and scale often used to maximum effect, and scenes and locations change frequently, giving a real sense of expanse and adventure. The one big letdown with effects is the body mechanics of the giants. They move oddly at times, and it can distract from the story. Another quibble is that there are occasional anachronistic colloquialisms. I don’t think “Nice!” was a typical adolescent exclamation during medieval times.
Jack and the Beanstalk as a modern 3D actioner is a hard sell. Even so, spectacular, adventurous, with violence and treachery, moments of real suspense and surprise, Jack the Giant Slayer is a solid, though bloody, effort in a genre that’s notoriously difficult to perfect.
Jack the Giant Slayer has just opened, in so many unenviable ways. Apparently, the combined production and advertising buget is a nearly incomprehensible $300 million dollars. Add to this a shelf life of almost 4 years from green light to release – an ominous timespan – and being positioned between Warm Bodies, which is still in theaters and also headlined by Nicholas Hoult, and given that Oz the Great and Powerful opens just one week from now, it seems like this film is doomed from any sort of commercial, let alone financial, success. The film is also hobbled by rebranding, and a muted publicity push just prior to release. Originally Jack the Giant Killer, (which apparently is the common name for this fairytale – at least in England), it was changed to Giant Slayer to suit American sensitivities. Given all the above concerns, it may be a lack of faith that it will succeed at all causing the distributor to cut back on advertising. Just look at the John Carter debacle that ended careers at Disney last year. And John Carter isn’t a bad film.
Bryan Singer directs. He’s had several spectacular hits (The Usual Suspects, X-Men and X-Men 2), more artful efforts (Apt Pupil), and some bombs (Superman Returns). Singer likes to work with personal favorites, and I’d bet money Ian McKellan does the voice-over on the trailer. (Singer is back on board with X-Men, directing the next First Class installment.)
Acting in Jack should be roundly solid with Nicholas Hoult, Stanley Tucci (who steals scenes in anything he does), Ewan McGregor, Elanor Tomlinson (Alice In Wonderland, The Village, The Illusionist), and a veritable who’s who of British character actors (Eddie Marsan, Ian McShane, Warwick Davis, Ewen Bremner, Bill Nighy, and so on).
Jack the Giant Slayer is receiving reviews all over the map. Critics are strongly divided, but viewers are responding more favorably: according to IMDB, it’s getting a pretty good response with a 6.8 weighted average, while rogerebert.com viewers are rating it 4 starts, rottentomatoes viewers are giving it 3.75 out of 5, and Fandango viewers say GO, with over 3400 yay’s, and just 7 nay’s. Lastly, Slayer is tweeting at 89% positive.
Jack the Giant Slayer should have some incredible production values, good acting, and be entertaining enough to satisfy most viewers, even if not at a Summer blockbuster caliber.
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