Friday, March 1, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer: A massive disappointment

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense fantasy action violence, frightening images and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

We’ve recently had two rounds of Snow White, not to mention re-imagined takes on Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, and now Warner Bros. has taken a crack at Jack and his beanstalk.

What’s next ... Clever Hans? The Fox and the Geese?

After Jack (Nicholas Hoult, right) comes up with a clever plan to distract a giant that is
blocking their escape, the stalwart lad and his companions — Elmont (Ewan McGregor)
and Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) wait to see if the scheme will work.
Hollywood’s current fascination with fairy tales seems a logical next step after spinning so much box-office gold from comic book superheroes, but one does wish for material that’s more mature, rather than less. Aside from its marvelous CGI giants — and one helluva weed — Jack the Giant Slayer is a curiously clumsy and vacuous affair.

The screenplay — a patchwork affair credited to Darren Lemke, David Dobkin, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney — has no moral whatsoever, which seems an odd way to approach this venerable English folktale. The characters, both good and evil, are handled haphazardly, with little regard for satisfying plot structure. Good guys get dispatched hastily and pointlessly, not even granted a chance to perish in an act of noble self-sacrifice; villains also check out too quickly, at unsatisfying junctures in this protracted narrative.

The whole film feels like a committee affair, as if the four writers squabbled and then grudgingly allowed each contributor’s favorite bit to get stitched into the final result.

The first-act build-up isn’t bad, with farm lad Jack (Nicholas Hoult) chafing over his dull life, as he works the land outside the 12th century fortified English city of Cloister. He seeks escape in the books once read aloud by his father, now dead: particularly the grim legend about the massive creatures who exist in a fearsome realm hovering between Heaven and Earth.

Elsewhere in the kingdom, headstrong Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson, perhaps remembered from 2010’s Alice in Wonderland) feels equally confined, thanks to an overly protective father — Ian McShane, as King Brahmwell — who refuses to let her mingle with the common folk. Worse yet, she has been betrothed to the smarmy Roderick (Stanley Tucci), whose frequent sneers suggest far less than a noble heart.

Roderick has come into possession of the magic beans that are capable of growing a massive beanstalk to Gantua, the giants’ realm of lore, these days regarded as little more than a myth. Roderick intends to control said giants and rule the land, but a guardian monk manages to steal back the beans, which in turn are passed along to Jack. He and Isabelle “meet cute” — the second time, actually — during a stormy night when, clandestinely out and about, and seeking shelter from the rain, she happens upon Jack’s rustic house. (Such a coincidence!)

Despite the monk’s warning to avoid getting the beans wet — much like the caution given in 1984’s Gremlins — poor Jack loses track of one. In the blink of an eye, his entire house is carried skyward by a dangerously vigorous beanstalk ... with Isabelle trapped inside. Jack, alas, is left behind, where — the following morning — he attempts to explain the night’s activities to King Brahmwell and his loyal knight, Elmont (Ewan McGregor, enduring a truly bad hair week).

Of course, Jack’s story is given a bit more credibility by that whopping big weed.

Naturally, the king orders a rescue mission. Naturally, Jack’s offer to help is rebuffed; naturally, the slimy Roderick thinks it would be good if the lad tagged along. Naturally.

So far, so good ... and this is about as good as it gets. From this point forward, the script falls apart as rapidly as any effort at maintaining logical continuity. Or pacing. Or reasonable character development.

Action-oriented director Bryan Singer (the X-Men franchise, Superman Returns) and his four writers now concentrate solely on eye-popping spectacle and adolescent fart humor, to the exclusion of all else. Apparently giants — much like their similarly huge troll cousins, in The Hobbit — are given to bad breath, rotting teeth, flatulence, booger-gobbling and every other disgusting act or indulgence of which a body is capable.

Not even children’s fairy tales, when translated to the big screen, are immune to coarse, frat-boy humor.

Granted, some of the sight gags draw well-deserved chuckles, such as one sequence that brings an entirely new meaning to snacking on pigs-in-a-blanket. But we spend an awful lot of time merely “taking in” the giants, and their ability to (for example) unearth and toss full-grown trees. Yes, their 25-foot bulk is well visualized, but...

Memo to Mr. Singer: CGI effects are quite the norm these days. You can’t impress us with nothing except giants and their massiveness.

Although Isabelle is introduced as an intelligent, adventurous and resourceful young woman, she never accomplishes anything ... aside from getting captured and caged. Surely a princess of such spirit could be allowed to prove useful and valiant in some manner. Poor Tomlinson does little but look pretty and serve as a reason for Jack’s heroic acts.

Similarly, Eddie Marsan and Ewen Bremner are completely wasted in sidekick roles: the former as Elmont’s stalwart lieutenant, Crawe; the latter as Roderick’s giggling psychopath of a henchman, Wicke. Both Marsan and Bremner establish a solid presence, early on, but the writers completely squander the “buddy dynamic” — good and evil — in both cases.

Even Tucci — a great character actor, and normally the highlight of any film — is muted, his performance little more than an unsatisfying echo of Chris Sarandon’s vile Prince Humperdinck, in 1987’s The Princess Bride. Tucci’s Roderick should be a much more vibrant character, but — once again — this film’s scripters handle him awkwardly and indecisively.

McShane has a better sense of the desired tone, as Brahmwell, and injects some actual dramatic heft into the second act, as the king faces a choice between saving his daughter, or saving his kingdom.

And because the script is so lackadaisical, and the pacing so sluggish, we’re given time to ponder vexing inconsistencies. For starters, why are all the livestock and insects in Gantua normal-sized, given that this is a land of giants? Seems to me said giants would have to spend all their waking moments foraging for food, if the pickings are that small. And why are there no lady giants? And if all this means the giants are immortal, why do they need to eat at all?

And what happens to the character of Jack’s uncle, who just, well, vanishes after the first act?

And ... but you get the idea.

Sloppy writers always ignore the No. 1 rule in fantasy: that there be rules, and that they be followed. Heck, that’s even more important in fantasy. If the premise and subsequent actions are entirely haphazard, we never really give a damn about the characters involved ... and that’s definitely the case here.

Hoult — all grown up from 2002’s About a Boy, and seen just a few weeks ago in Warm Bodies — makes a plausibly stalwart young hero; he, at least, gets to live up to his character’s billing, in this film’s title. He tosses off the modern-sounding, snarky one-liners with reasonable aplomb, and he’s charming in Jack’s bashful-commoner mode, while gazing soulfully into Isabelle’s eyes.

McGregor is oddly flat as Elmont, whose intended mentor relationship with Jack never quite gels. Bill Nighy voices Fallon, the giants’ de facto leader, with a suitably gruff and nasty edge. John Kassir supplies inarticulate rage and frustration as Fallon’s rather unusual, ah, “companion.”

Gavin Bocquet’s production design ably brings the medieval setting to life, but John Ottman’s score is unremarkable. The 3D effects are acceptably well integrated — particularly the beanstalk, as it springs to massive life — but I’m not sure they’re worth the premium ticket price.

Ultimately, Jack the Giant Slayer is too infantile for adults and older children, which I suppose makes sense, given the story’s fairy tale origins. But it’s also rather too nasty and violent for little-kid viewers; the PG-13 rating is well earned.

Point being, I dunno who Singer made this film for, and he’ll likely be rewarded with no audience at all ... and that’ll be a rather expensive, $200 million bean for Warner Bros. to swallow.

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