I went to Jack the Giant Slayer to find out what the hell happened to Bryan Singer. Ten years ago, he was one of Hollywood’s hottest directors, after breaking through with the ingenious The Usual Suspects (1995) and then scoring two massive box-office hits with the first two X-Men films (2000 and 2003). Then, though, came the financial and critical flop of Superman Returns (2006) and the undistinguished Valkyrie (2008). I’m not sure whether the entirely bizarre Jack the Giant Slayer will restore him to good standing with the money people — his upcoming rejoining of the X-Men series is far more likely to accomplish that. What I do know is that this reworking of the fable of Jack and the beanstalk is an encouraging sign that his talent hasn’t gone away.
This version of the story begins with an orphaned farmboy named Jack (Nicholas Hoult) who trades away his uncle’s horse to a fugitive monk (Simon Lowe), who leaves him with a handful of beans and a dire warning not to get them wet. Less familiarly, we also have Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a princess who chafes at the restrictions forced upon her by her overprotective royal father (Ian McShane). After losing her way in a rainstorm, the princess shows up at Jack’s house just in time to be trapped inside when one of the magic beans sprouts into a stalk that carries the house to the realm of the giants, above the clouds. Jack volunteers to climb the stalk along with a complement of the king’s soldiers to rescue her.
From the opening words, which take the famous verse in a different direction (“Fee, fi, fo, fum, / Ask not whence the thunder comes”), you can sense that this film is being made with more care and intelligence than most others of its kind. At 115 minutes, the movie runs a bit long for something based on a children’s fairy tale. Yet it doesn’t drag, and it allows for the script (co-written by Singer’s The Usual Suspects co-conspirator Christopher McQuarrie) to fill out the story with rewarding subplots about the power games being played by Isabelle’s treacherous, much-older fiancé (Stanley Tucci) and among the fractious giants. Speaking of those beings, when they finally appear onscreen, the animation renders them as filthy and repellent monsters that you somehow can’t look away from, even though our first look at their two-headed leader (voiced by Bill Nighy) is close enough for us to see his nostril hair. They’re far more palpable and terrifying presences than the trolls and goblins in The Hobbit, and the climactic battle scene with the giants laying siege to the castle is done with cleverness as well as hair-raising tension.
As we saw with the X-Men films, Singer is never content to let the special effects swallow up his actors, a quality that many blockbuster filmmakers who have come after him have tried to emulate. We see that same thing at work here too. Tucci does a bit too much in a slimy role, but Ewan McGregor finds just the right balance of gravitas and cartoonishness in the part of the king’s bravest knight. This show, though, clearly belongs to Hoult, who’s shown to much better advantage than he was in Warm Bodies. Here this British actor with a muscular physique and soft facial features gets to be swashbuckling, sensitive, funny, and scared out of his mind at the idea of fighting giants.
With all this, I can’t help fearing for this movie’s prospects of finding an audience. The film fully deserves its PG-13 rating and could have earned an R with a few more seconds of footage in a couple of places. As such, younger children are likely to find it too scary and violent, while older kids who might appreciate it are likely to think themselves too old for a movie about Jack and the beanstalk. It would be a shame, though, if no one saw this film that’s more creative than Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and more satisfying than either Red Riding Hood or Snow White and the Huntsman. The movie ends with a joke depicting the fate of the magical crown that allows a human to rule the giants, and it’s a very good one, especially if you know your British history. It’s a fitting end to this project that gives a good name to fairy tale adaptations.
Jack the Giant Slayer
Starring Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney. Rated PG-13.