Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer

A hill of beans

'Jack the Giant Slayer' is a good-looking, well-made film with nothing to say about its characters or its story

Jack the Giant Slayer
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Ewen Bremner, Eddie Marsan and Bill Nighy
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 54 minutes
Opened March 1, 2013
(out of four)

Jack the Giant Slayer is one of those movies you admire for its technical competence and not much of anything else. Because it is directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns), there is a cool proficiency to the handling of its epic scope. Given the prevalence of a certain brand of franchise filmmaking lately - the nonsensical camerawork, the jumbled cutting* - watching this movie was a bit like comfort food. At the very least, I knew I was watching something made by someone who knows what he's doing.

*I'm looking at you, A Good Day to Die Hard.

But beyond that, there doesn't seem to be much of an idea of what this movie wanted to be, or why. There was certainly no thought behind the titular Jack (the talented Nicholas Hoult in an underwritten unwritten role). When you see a film taking an old fairy-tale and reimagining it for a new audience, you'd like to think there would at least be some conception of where the main character fits into that process. And that there might be some actual, you know, imagining as part of the whole "reimagining" thing.

Instead, Jack is about as colorless a stock character as you could ever come across - the poor farmboy who comes into the possession of magic beans, climbs up the beanstalk, falls in love with a princess and saves the day with an act of valor. All very nice plot functions, but the film fails to actually build a character around those functions.

No better is the development of the aforementioned princess, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson). What we know about her is this: Stuck in the castle for most of every day and unhappily betrothed to the odious Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), she's dissatisfied with her life in royalty and longs for a bit of adventure. We know this because the movie keeps telling us that she longs for a bit of adventure. It is, in fact, pretty much the only thing it tells us about her. What the screenplay neglected to provide her with was a personality.

It's impossible to blame Tomlinson, who does as much as she can with a role that's barely written at all. The cast as a whole (including Ewan McGregor as Elmont, a stern but good-humored member of the princess' royal guard) elevates the characters beyond their nondescript writing. Still, charming performances alone can't save a movie that never really finds a reason for being.

The only real idea it has is the mythology involving the giants, and the reasons why they've been cut off from both heaven and earth for centuries. In an introductory prologue that explicitly calls to mind that of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, young Jack and young Isabelle, each in their separate beds miles and worlds apart, are tucked into bed and told of an old legend - represented in a distinctively stylized animated form - about the ancient ruler Erik the Great and his heroic stand against an army of invading giants.

Then we flash-forward a decade later and the wheels to the plot are mechanically set in motion. Jack and Isabelle exchange awkward glances, keep serendipitously running into one another, she gets kidnaped, he rescues her, Roderick attempts a coup by using a magical crown to control the giant horde, yada yada. But even Tucci, who's typically so good in diabolical villainous roles, can't do much to energize things.

The film features several impressively mounted action setpieces that nonetheless fail to leave any imprint. There's such a detachment between action and character here, it's bizarre. The pleasures the film does provide are mostly due to Singer and his technicians, who come up with some clever ways to stage action and effects-heavy sequences, and find room for a few amusing visual gags as well.

The effects (always a risky proposition in a movie that relies on them so heavily) are often very strong - particularly the beanstalk itself. The beanstalk is not just a backdrop, but the focal point of several key scenes, and the sense of realistic movement and even character (for lack of a better word) we get is more impressive than any number of CGI creatures I've seen in recent years.

The more problematic effects are that of the giants, which were created through performance capture and computer animation. The giants certainly look better than I thought they might, and I admire the amount of detail of each one - not just in their gnarled faces, but in their posture and body language as well. (They're also brought to life with some fine performance-capture and voice work, particularly by the great Bill Nighy.) But there's still a glossiness to them that's all too apparent when they interact with human characters - and their unnatural movement (always a big sticking point with performance capture) is a persistent drawback.

Having said that, the giants still make for far more compelling characters than do most of the humans, who are done a complete disservice by a script that almost seems like it wants nothing to do with them at all. Or if it does, it certainly doesn't know what to do with them. And so ultimately, Jack - slayer of giants though he may be - ends up being a virtual non-entity in his own movie.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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