My first impression of Jack the Giant Slayer, just from the title alone, was that it was going to suck. I had imagined it to be another lame Hollywood attempt to cash in on a popular fairy tale, in the vein of recent bombs such as Red Riding Hood, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and so forth.
But then I discovered that it stars Nicholas Hoult, probably still best known for playing the kid in About a Boy, but has since shot to fame with X-Men: First Class, Warm Bodies, and being Jennifer Lawrence’s ex-boyfriend. The rest of the cast is great too, with Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci and Ian McShane all playing key roles. Importantly, it’s directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, Valkyrie, X-Men: First Class), whose cinematic style, visual flair and knack for action I have always appreciated.
I’m glad to say I checked it out in the end, because Jack the Giant Slayer, for all its faults, is by far the best of the recent fairy tale movies mentioned above. The film knows its limits and sticks to what can it can do best, which is loads of giant action, battle scenes, likable characters and a simple but familiar story line about a boy growing into an unlikely hero.
The story needs little explanation. In a magical land which according to legend was once ruled by giants, Jack (Hoult), a farm boy comes across some special beans. A princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) disappears and Jack joins a search team headed by King’s guard Elmont (McGregor) and adviser Lord Roderick (Tucci), the princess’s future husband. You can fill in the gaps.
The light romance and the straightforward humour in this film work because they don’t overwhelm the engaging and often clever action, the special ingredient that elevates Jack the Giant Killer above your average CGI flick. The final battle sequence, in particular, is as exciting as anything I’ve seen so far this year.
On the downside, I suppose the CGI could have been stronger, given that Singer chose to animate the giants entirely with computer graphics as opposed to “enlarging” real actors with special effects. My guess is because he wanted to make the giants less human, with long, dangly limbs, weird faces and various deformities. They looked more like beautifully rendered video game characters than “real” giants, but perhaps I’m asking for too much.
Hoult, with his lanky, boyish charisma, looks like he is ready to be a major star. While he doesn’t carry the film he is the one who keeps the film rolling. Tomlinson is a great match for him as Princess Isabelle, while McGregor and Tucci are always two guys you would welcome in any movie. Ian McShane, whom some might recognise as Blackbeard from the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, provides both laughs and stoicism in his role as King Brahmwell. As for the giants, the most memorable one is played via motion capture by two veteran stars — Bill Nighy and John Kassir (the Crypt Keeper from Tales From the Crypt!!!).
To sum things up, Jack the Giant Slayer is an enjoyable popcorn movie that should appeal to kids and adults who just want a bit of escapist fun for a couple of hours. It’s not special and certainly not memorable, but considering how badly it could have gone I’d call it both a formulaic success and a pleasant surprise.
3.75 stars out of 5
PS: I have to admit that I only knew there was the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk and had no idea that there was also a closely related one called Jack the Giant Killer. Jack the Giant Slayer is loosely based on a combination of both.