As soon as the closing credits for Jack the Giant Slayer began to roll, I knew I was in dangerous territory. Once again, I was about to enter the “lighten up” zone.
Every one of my film-critic colleagues has been there, even if they give it a different name. It’s that place where they’re about to crap all over big-budget escapist fare, and they know the ensuing comments are going to play the “you snooty critics don’t know how to appreciate fun” card. Phrases littered with “it’s just” will be bandied about: “It’s just a comic-book movie.” “It’s just an action movie.” “It’s just entertainment.” And then the kicker: “Lighten up.”
Indeed, Jack the Giant Slayer seems fabricated specifically to engender such sentiments, so resolutely does it avoid anything that might inspire a moment’s afterthought. It starts by making itself a fairy tale about a fairy tale: In a long-ago land, young farm boy Jack and the princess Isabelle both hear from their respective parents the already-legendary story about how monks used magic beans to try to reach heaven, and how the nasty, man-eating giants that were found in a kingdom above the clouds were eventually tamed using a magic crown. Ten years later, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) has made the familiar exchange of the family horse for some of those beans, and a chance encounter with Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) sets him on an adventure up a giant beanstalk to rescue the princess, and perhaps try to save the kingdom.
There’s plenty more table-setting required before we can get to the good stuff. Because we’re people of an enlightened age, Isabelle needs to be a spunky adventure-seeker in her own right, although as the plot plays out, she’s really more theoretically strong and independent-minded than someone who actually demonstrates intellect or resourcefulness. Stanley Tucci plays the nobleman Roderick, Isabelle’s intended husband and our villain, who plans to use the crown and beans to rally an army of giants for world conquest, all while being unburdened by anything resembling motivation. And Ian McShane (as the king) and Ewan McGregor (as Elmont, the head of the king’s guards) try to wring some personality between the large chunks of time when they haven’t been given anything interesting to do.
You’d like to think it’ll all be worth the wait once we actually get to the giants’ land of Gantua, which resembles leftover concept drawings for Pandora bought at a James Cameron garage sale. But director Bryan Singer (X-Men) and his writing team spend virtually no time on world-building, providing little sense for why the giants are so bitter about being denied access to the human world simply because it contains their favorite snack. The design of the creatures themselves is appropriately grotesque, and Bill Nighy does solid voice work as the two-headed leader of the giants. Yet it’s hard to become fully engrossed in this strange world when the most interesting thing the film can find to do with its giants is make them fart, scratch their armpits and eat their own boogers. These are human-eating, 30-foot-tall beasts—and they’re boring.
That’s at the center of what’s so aggravating about Jack the Giant Slayer: It’s so colossally lazy. Singer can direct a decent action set piece—like Jack’s rescue of Isabelle and Elmont in the giants’ kitchen—but his climactic battle between giants and humans feels like warmed-over Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers. We see Jack wander past a golden harp in a room filled with treasure—because, hey, we know there’s a golden harp in the Jack and the beanstalk story—but no one can be bothered to figure out what to do with it besides a two-second reference. The cast is full of actors who can be appealing and lively, but they’re all wasted.
Hollywood has been spending a lot of time lately scrounging up public-domain properties like Snow White and Hansel & Gretel to turn into features, because latching onto a familiar marketing premise is half the work. In Jack the Giant Slayer, it feels as though that was pretty much all the work anyone was willing to do. Nothing about the experience should make a viewer feel “lightened up”—except maybe in the wallet.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER
Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor