There are two ways to read a bedtime story to a child. The first is to be animated, and to draw the child into the world. You move around, you do the voices of the characters, you pause for dramatic affect, and you help the child craft a dream. The other way is to lethargically read the words on the page, and hope the damn kid goes to bed already. Bryan Singer‘s Jack the Giant Slayer plays like bored parent who begrudgingly recites the same familiar tale. Most of the cast seems to have no idea what to do with their one-dimensional characters, and they’re stuck in a bland world that offers few challenges. Furthermore, the film looks astoundingly cheap from the CGI effects right down to the costumes. There’s no imagination to Jack the Giant Slayer, and it fails to make a case for why it even needs to exist.
Appropriately, the film begins by cross-cutting between young tenant farmer Jack (Michael Self) and young princess Isabelle (Sydney Rawson) hearing a bedtime story/exposition about giants, who have faded into legend (the story is set to a CGI recreation with graphics that look like they’re from a 1995 computer game). The legend says that there was war between humans and giants, but a magical crown was crafted that could control the giants. The beasts were sent back up into the clouds, and peace has reigned ever since. Ten years later, a grown-up Jack (Nicholas Hoult) sells his horse to a monk in exchange for beans (to be used as collateral/for safekeeping), and Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) wants to go on adventures, and not marry Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the advisor to the King (Ian McShane). Isabelle sneaks out, and during a storm, finds refuge at Jack’s home. While she’s there, one of the beans gets wet, sprouts a giant beanstalk, the princess is elevated high above into the clouds, and so it’s up to Jack and a group of soldiers led by the courageous Elmont (Ewan McGregor) to save her. Meanwhile, Roderick has found the fabled crown and plans to use it to control the giants so he can rule the world.
The film takes the old fairy tale and expands the plot, but not the scope. There are more players and motives, but none of them are particularly interesting because we never get to know the characters. It’s as if a child would ask, “What’s Jack like?” and the parent responds, “I don’t know. He’s heroic, I guess.” And while Isabelle claims that she wants to be an adventurer, her sole purpose is to be rescued constantly by Jack. They’re small people going through a world that’s large but empty.
There’s so much room to reinvent the notion of a giant and their design. The only requirement of a giant is that they be big. From there, an artist can start reshaping and playing with our notions of what a giant should look like beyond their size. Singer does absolutely nothing other than make them ugly and dress them in scraps of armor and leather. Again, if this were a bedtime story, the exchange would go something along the lines of:
“What did the giants look like?”
“They’re big and ugly. They’re giants. Seriously, kid. Can you just go to bed, already? Hawaii Five-0 is almost on.”
The film makes a quarter-hearted attempt to make the giants somewhat sympathetic since they’re slaves to the power of the magic crown, but since they have to be “bad guys”, the moral of the story is that some folks just need to be enslaved.
In addition to the lazy storytelling and world-building, Jack the Giant Slayer looks astoundingly cheap. The giants lack any realism, which may not have been so bad if they were more fantastical, but their bland design highlights the shortcomings of the animation. We can sometimes look past crappy animation if we care about the characters, but these are shallow antagonists. The real villain is Tucci, and thankfully he’s a gifted enough actor to make his character shine. When Isabelle says she doesn’t want to marry Roderick, and then turns to him and says, “No offense,” the non-verbal reply he gives is priceless. It’s a subtle, unexpected reaction that gets laughs and also conveys to us, “No worries. I’m going to rule the kingdom anyway.”
This is what effort looks like, and there’s far too little of that on the part of Bryan Singer. Even the King’s costume looks like it’s made out of cardboard that’s been spray-painted gold. This lackadaisical approach removes even the storybook charm the film could have possessed. There’s a complete and utter lack of vision, and that vision is essential if you’re going to take an overly familiar tale like Jack and the Beanstalk, and try to bring it to the big screen. Jack the Giant Slayer may be bigger, but the adventure feels as small as ever.