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Jack the Giant Slayer Review: Oversized Family Fun

Over the past decade, Hollywood has unveiled literally dozens of high profile fantasy adventures, be they for more mature audiences, for pre-teens and families, or adapted from novels or from original work, it’s proved to be a lucrative segment of the market (if an uneven one in terms of consistent quality).  I don’t need to tell you the latest popular niche of this broader genre is the tweaking of fairy tales, fables, classic children’s books and pre-existing fantasy property to appear sleek and modern for today’s audiences. Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer fits squarely into this realm of adventure and though rough in terms of appeal across all ages, should find its place as memorable fare for the correct one. With the first (of many) incarnations of Jack and the Beanstalk now reaching the ripe age of 206, I think it ridiculous to go into the basic plot of this modern update – adventurous boy, poor livestock-selling skills, bean trading, stalk-growing, etc – so I shall instead speak to the noteworthy tweaks Singer and the film’s writers have made.  The most interesting comes with the character of Lord Roderick, played with greenery-chewing fervor by the great Stanley Tucci (sporting a rather unfortunate hair piece and what appear to be false teeth of some kind). Instead of having Jack venture up the beanstalk willingly to pilfer the giant’s riches, an unfortunate event traps the kingdom’s princess high above the clouds, requiring a brave rescue party (including Jack and Roderick) to find her. Roderick’s intentions, however, are less than noble and using some ancient magic has a plan to rule the giants and use them to conquer Earth.  Likewise, smaller touches such as having some of the giant’s names stem from Joseph Jacobs’ 1890 iconic version of the folk tale – meet Fye, Fi, Fo and Fumm – is a clever touch, as is how the multiple ancient beans play key roles further down the line. Even further tweaking of the story’s conventions would have been much appreciated, though the attempts made, and the epic retelling of it all, deserves recognition. Unfortunately, not everything in Jack the Giant Slayer is quite as clever, with many of the issues stemming from the uneasy bridging between a light family tone, and darker, violent scenes. Essentially, mucus, flatulence, annoying sidekicks and "bean" and "giant" puns meet revolting behemoths skewering pigs with toothpicks and biting the heads off unfortunate soldiers. Like I iterated earlier, there is a certain sliver of viewing audience who will love the shifting tones – able to both laugh immaturely and relish in the slick action. Less fortunate viewers however are bound to be rather scarred by what’s on screen. This is not for the young ones, folks.  Something young and old can certainly agree upon is the tired nature of including yet another daydreaming, strong-willed princess, confined to the castle by her overprotective father, only to fall in love with the ratty farm boy she can never marry. The perpetual resurfacing of this cliché in nearly every modern fairytale enrages me. It managed to help sink Brave last year and has plagued this type of fare for far too long. What can be agreed on unequivocally is the amount of special effects on display, and for the most part they work rather well. The beanstalk growing and felling sequences are particularly impressive (as are the effects on the leaves of the giant plant – a small thing I know, but noteworthy nevertheless) as are the giants themselves, if less consistently. Effective rendering of these creatures seems to come down to exactly what activities in which they are involved. Close-ups and mid-distance action: bravo. Long-take, dialogue-driven scenes and certain, more tricky combat: less mind-blowing.  Thankfully behind the main antagonists we have strong voice actors, chiefly Bill Nigh as the two-headed General Fallon who his capable of spewing sufficient malice in his sleep. Complimenting the CGI characters of this tale are, of course, the flesh and blood additions including Ian McShane as King Brahmwell who strikes the right balance between tender and brave, Ewan McGregor as the infinitely charming Sir Elmont and Nicolas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson as the star-crossed lovers Jack and Isabelle. These two, who anchor much of the journey, prove to be strong, likeable leads. Tomlinson is affable, charming and beautiful (what’s not to admire with those qualities) and Hoult, who after showing surprising chops in Warm Bodies proves he has leading man potential, even if his charisma isn’t exactly of the intoxicating variety.  With an intense final battle (featuring history’s strongest drawbridge) notable work from Singer (even when the film falters on a technical or storytelling level you can never claim it to be poorly directed) and numerous instances where fun trumps cliché, Jack the Giant the Giant Slayer is decent as 2013’s first blockbuster, even if its vision never reaches the height of the creatures at its center.


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