Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Jack the Giant Slayer
Much to my surprise, "Jack the Giant Slayer" turned out to be a largely entertaining movie. Its basically a pure formula fantasy movie, hitting every step of the Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey to the letter. This isn't a movie that's going to re-invent how movies are made, but its pretty fun, solid movie experience. "Jack the Giant Slayer"'s title, though, makes little sense, as its pretty clearly an adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk" - and I presume the title was changed in order to make the film seem more like a hardcore action film and not a kid's fantasy adventure. Unfortunately, "Jack the Giant Slayer" is exactly the latter, the kind of movie that every children should grow up with and play hundreds of times in their VHS or DVD player. The story here is remarkably classic, to the point that most critics have dismissed "Jack the Giant Slayer" as being merely cliched. You have the farm boy dreaming of more in his life, the villains attacking, the rebellious princess, the colorful supporting characters, its all things you've seen before - but none of them are bad things, and the movie adds up to something rather entertaining.
Of course, "Jack the Giant Slayer" falls into this weird new trend in Hollywood where old fairy tales are being given huge Blockbuster recreations as these massive action adventure movies, similar to last year's "Snow White and the Huntsman" and the coming "Maleficent". "Jack the Giant Slayer" seemed like a truly ill-conceived idea to me, and I guess it was, since right now studio execs are crossing their fingers to just break even on this flop. No joke, right now just about every fairy tale has been optioned for a Blockbuster make-over, and God only knows how many we'll actually receive. "Jack the Giant Slayer" really is the best we can hope from with this fad, a pleasant simple movie that exists merely to please its viewers, be they children or bored college students on a Tuesday afternoon.
There are obviously going to be flaws in this movie, and before I talk about the things I like, I'll deal with what's easily the biggest problem in "Jack the Giant Slayer", the effects. The CG work on the giants is pretty bad, to the point that I am certain twenty years from now this movie is going to be hysterical to future audiences. In the opening of the movie there's a history sequence that I think was meant to be a stylized telling of the magical backstory to this world here, but the animation is so stiff and the graphics so grainy that it looked like an FMV in a PlayStation 1 game. The giants are obviously fake and extremely garish, though I think it actually works in a strange way. Ray Harryhausen - whose fantasy work we'll be examining very soon in the Giant Monster Series - pointed out that fantasy should never look real, it should look beyond real. But really, its hard to excuse mediocre CG these days, I'm sure, I watch movies like "The Giant Claw", so I can look past it.
And now for positives. The basic quality to the plot and the fluffiness of the entire production remind me favorably to old fantasy movies from the Eighties, like "Flash Gordon" or "Willow"*. Those aren't perfect movies, and neither is this (though obviously "Willow" is far superior to "Jack the Giant Slayer"). The movie is unapologetic in using magic beans, having a giant beanstalk, huge giants, and elaborate, often-ridiculous fantasy clothing. Everybody is really hammy, and that's wonderful, it adds color to this film, and keeps the movie funny and moving. The main couple, Jack and the Princess, are on the bland side, they both seem to exist just to look pretty for the camera, but they're charming enough and surrounded by a strong enough supporting cast that this flaw is never too deep. This isn't a romance movie, its just a Fairy Tale movie. Compare to "Snow White and the Huntsman", which wasn't a fairy tale movie, it was an action movie based around a fairy tale story. I'd say "Jack the Giant Slayer" is the better movie of the two, though its really a matter of choice.
Jack is played by Nicholas Hoult, who most people now know as being the ridiculously handsome zombie from "Warm Bodies". However, its easy to forget he's even in the movie when the main supporting hero is Ewan McGregor, playing the dashing Captain of the Guard, this Errol Flynn-type that's truly awesome. McGregor has spiked-hair and a mustache, but acts like he's come right out of a Forties swashbuckling movie. And it must be said to the Captain's credit, he never goes after the Princess's booty, he never betrays the kingdom, and somehow he manages to survive the movie despite taking on some of the most dangerous tasks that a lesser-script would restrict only to its hero.
The villains are actually a mixture of a few figures, both human and giant. Bill Nighy voice acts the main Giant Commander, this two-headed creature that dreams of revenge on humanity. The human villain is this silly scheming advising to the King, played by Stanley Tucci. Tucci comes off as certainly ruthless enough, but with his weird teeth and wild hair, he seems just a bit too comical to be our main foe. As for the rest of the giants, they're a grotesque gaggle of various gross features, with huge pores, ugly faces, and various nasty habits, like the giant cook who enjoys the taste of his own snot. The giants have a favorite snack, and that happens to be human. Several characters are devoured, though thanks to camera angles and quick cuts, there's no gore, though its still pretty clear to anybody watching when Stanley Tucci's lackey gets decapitated in the misshapen jaws of a CG giant.
Though I rather enjoyed "Jack the Giant Slayer"**, I can't say its a very memorable experience. You'll have fun watching it, but its so light it sort of fades right out of your mind almost immediately. There's plenty to bring a smile to your face here though, and I would have to recommend this for anybody looking for just a good time at the movies. But if you want something artistically challenging or even something with a strong emotional impact, you'll have to look someplace else. Really, watch it for Ewan McGregor, he kicks ass in this.
* Warwick Davis, the dwarf star of "Willow" actually shows up at one point as a market performer, working right for a crowd of little children in what had to be an homage to that movie. By the way, "Willow" is a great little movie, I really recommend it.
** To the point that its probably the best movie I've seen from 2013, though that's not really saying much when everything so far has been various shades of disappointing except for "Beautiful Creatures".