Friday, January 17, 2014

Film Friday: Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Jack the Giant Slayer was considered a box office bomb, as it just about broke even. The critics hated it, giving it a 50% rating. They used words like “one-dimensional,” saying it lacked a good script, and called it “an attempt to cash in on a trend.” Well, I can’t disagree with any of that, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. This film is a throwback to a simpler age, I just wish it had offered a stronger script.
Directed by Bryan Singer of The Usual Suspects and X-Men, Jack the Giant Slayer is the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” done as an action film. It follows in the questionable footsteps of Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman, and it probably draws its roots back to Van Helsing. Unlike these other films, however, it is neither dark nor cynical nor anachronistic.
The story begins with two families telling their children the story of Erik, an ancient king who defeated an army of giants from the sky by crafting a magical crown which compelled the giants to obey. The story is told to Jack, a peasant, and Princess Isabelle, a descendent of Erik. Then we skip ahead ten years. Jack has been sent to town by his uncle to sell his horse. In town, Jack sees a group of turds harassing a young woman and he steps up to defend her. This is Princess Isabelle and moments later Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the Captain of the King’s Guard, arrives to protect her and take her away. Naturally, Jack is smitten.

As Jack continues through town, he runs into a monk who appears to be fleeing the authorities. The monk offers Jack some magic beans in exchange for his horse. He tells Jack that Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci) would pay handsomely for their return. The monk then takes Jack’s horse and flees.
Jack returns home to find that his uncle is a tad angry that Jack traded his horse for some worthless beans. He takes the beans and throws them away. Meanwhile, Isabelle has escaped the castle because she doesn’t want to marry Lord Roderick. She takes shelter in Jack’s house because it has begun to rain. When the water from the rain hits one of the beans, it grows into a beanstalk which destroys the house and grows way up into the sky. Isabelle ends up up the stalk.

Back on the ground, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) sends a team up the stalk to rescue his daughter. This team includes Elmont, Jack, Roderick and some others. When they reach the top, they find an entirely different world. This is a world of giants. Soon enough, most of the team is dead or captured. Elmont and Jack find themselves in the kitchen where they are being baked into snacks for the giants. Roderick, however, has gone a different route. He has stolen the magical crown which lets him control the giants and he intends to lead them back down the beanstalk to take over the kingdom. He has also been responsible for killing most of the team.
On the ground, the King decides they need to destroy the beanstalk, even if his daughter remains missing.

I won’t spoil the rest.
Why I Liked This
Let’s get this out of the way: this isn’t a great film by any stretch. The effects are good, but nothing special. The acting is what you expect, but nothing memorable. The dialog is not clever – even the clever bits are obvious. The story is very, very simple. There are no unforeseen twists. There is nothing that isn’t predictable. In short, there’s nothing really to commend this film.

What this film does have though, is a sense of earnestness that makes this fun. There is no cynicism in this film. The bad guy wears a black hat and twirls a mustache, the good guys are pure and chocked full of noble traits, no good guy is secretly bad or must overcome some prior act of evil. The King isn’t stupid or an ass. He loves his daughter. Jack is heroic. Elmont is heroic. And they all rise to the occasion. And not a single character rolls his eye to the audience telling them they view the film as a joke.
Putting this in different terms, this film is a real throwback to the simpler age of storytelling where good and evil are well divided, where you’re not asked “to understand” the villain apart from knowing his motive, where the hero is a hero rather than an anti-hero, and where the world isn’t a dark, nasty place awash in cynicism, corruption and betrayal... nor is this “earnestness” meant sarcastically. This is simply a film that tells a story that is meant to be enjoyed. Moreover, there are no politics here. There’s no attempt to impart some political message about the rich or capitalism or the environment or the plight of peasants, nor is the film politically correct. It’s just a film about some people who end up fighting some giants. That makes for a pleasant, fun film.

It’s too bad this film was let down by its script, and I mean this in two ways. First, it seems clear that with the lack of cynicism, the writer was at a bit of a loss for how to come up with conflict to keep the film moving. Indeed, understanding the structure of modern scripts, you can see the points where the various negative parts usually sit, and in their place here you get characters lamenting that they are incapable of doing anything except waiting, i.e. the writer didn’t fill those parts with non-cynical plot points or conflict. The writer also struggled a bit with how to have Jack earn the respect of others around him; it happens far too quickly and too easily. I think these points are related. Had the writer focused the script more on Jack’s journey from good but stupid farm boy to hero of the Kingdom and stretched this out over the course of the movie, then I think this could have been quite a rousing film. But he didn’t. So instead, you end up with a film that is about moving between set pieces.
Secondly, the script fails for lack of cleverness. Time and again, it feels like the writer chose the line of dialog that was obvious for the moment. The few bits that are truly clever come from the special effects people or some moment in the action. That's not enough. This is the kind of movie that needs to be packed with puns, turns of phrase, and well-earned irony to be memorable, but the writing here simply never offers any of that. Indeed, in this cynical age of ours, where every character is a twisted mess with a secret villainous side waiting to happen and voyeurism can be added to any script to give it punch, a film like this needs more than such a simple and simplistic telling if it’s going to pull in an audience.

So I feel mixed about recommending this film. This is a fun movie, but don’t expect anything that will make an impression on you... but it’s not going to insult you or turn you off either. It is a decent movie and I respect what it was trying to do and I think it’s worth your time if you’re just looking to be entertained, but it never moves beyond that, and that's too bad.



Anthony said...

I saw Jack recently and wasn't impressed. Given that Superman Returns was his prior movie, Singer is the M. Night Shaymalan of action movies as far as I am concerned.

I loved X-men 2, but that seems to have been a fluke. Jack and Superman were both films with vast budgets, earnest but utterly bland heros, weak villians (villians are one of the most important components of action movies IMHO), boring fights, predictable plots and forgettable dialogue.

Backthrow said...

I haven't seen JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, but it would be interesting to compare it to the sorts of films it is apparently emulating, namely Ray Harryhausen fantasy-adventures. Those are fun, and a few are true classics, although they are more often vehicles for his animated set-pieces than are populated by memorable human characters, wit, or particularly strong storytelling (not bad storytelling; just competent/adequate Point-A-to-Point-B stuff, largely by journeyman directors who wouldn't get in Harryhausen's way, technically speaking). So, how does something like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS or the original CLASH OF THE TITANS stack up against JACK, when both are earnest and boast good effects work? Where do they succeed in the areas where JACK fails? Or, are you comparing Jack to other kinds of earnest adventure films?

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I've noticed the trend too. The Usual Suspects was amazing. X-Men 1 was ok, X-Men 2 was great. Then it gets really weak, really quickly. So I think you are correct in your comparison to Shaymalan.

I can't say that this is a great film. It did find it entertaining, but in a low expectations sort of way. It was better than I expected and worth seeing, but not worth remembering.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, Compared to Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, this is a total waste of time. The story here is utterly basic -- climb beanstalk, fight giants, giants climb down, fight giants, roll credits. There is nothing here that gives you the epic feel of the others. Nor are any of the characters larger than life. There's also precious little character development -- Jack wins their respect simply by virtue of being present. The effects aren't as lifelike either. This is pure CGI and it offers that cartoony feel.

This is very much a modern film and all the negative connotations that implies.

Kit said...

I'll wait until X-Men: Days of Future Past before I write off Singer.

Anyway, good review, Andrew. What are some movies that you think reflect what it was going for? Modern or old.

AndrewPrice said...

KIt, Thanks. I think Singer has done well with the X-Men franchise, though the films seem to be getting weaker as they go.

In terms of what they were going for, they were definitely following the trend of turning fairy tales into action films -- Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, etc. I don't know that they were mimicking anything from the past so much as they just sucked out the cynicism. This feels a bit like a very straight telling you might find from the 1960s, except for the style.

Voz said...

This looked so bland to me when the first trailers came out...I still have no desire to see it even though it would only cost me a buck twenty at redbox...with CGI being so great nowadays, the giants looked terribly underdone...too cartoony. I enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman...mostly due to Hemsworth being able to carry the film a lot better than some unknown guy...and the CGI in Huntsman was much better also.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, This was bland and the CGI was cartoony. I can't say otherwise. I thought the film was ultimate entertaining, but as I say, it was very weak. They could have used a really strong script doctor.

I thought Huntsman was beautifully shot, but kind of lifeless. I didn't hate it, but I didn't care much for it either. It kind of was.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, how can you call Huntsman lifeless? I mean, Kristen Stewart was one of the leads! What more do you need to really energize a film?

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Yeah, any film involving Kristen Stewart is a clearly a ball of excitement.

Anthony said...

I keep failing to associate the Usual Suspects with Bryan Singer. Its a very different movie than everything else he's done.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, It's interesting because he got off to such a different start and seem to have fallen into formula. He's no Nolan.

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