With Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane. Written by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney. Directed by Bryan Singer. Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language. 114 minutes.
There have been many film versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” from a 1952 movie with Abbott and Costello to a 2001 revisionist TV version with Matthew Modine. However, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER takes us in a new direction. It is a version so violent it is rated PG-13. Do not bring the little ones unless you plan on paying their therapy bills for many years to come.
The true context for this movie is the fact that we are seeing numerous TV shows and movies that want to explore these well-known stories at an adult level. Recent films like “Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” may have different agendas, but what they have in common is that they have a level of violence and horror that is not appropriate for youngsters.
Given that, “Jack the Giant Slayer” is an interesting spin on the familiar story of the poor farmer boy who climbs the beanstalk and makes his fame and fortune defeating a giant, but it ups the stakes considerably. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) finds himself in the odd position of defending Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who finds him much more interesting than the venal nobleman Roderick (Stanley Tucci) to whom she is pledged in marriage. She pleads with her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), who loves her but insists his will be done.
So she slips out one evening and finds herself in the simple home of Jack who has just traded his uncle’s horse for some allegedly magic beans. One of them germinates during a rainstorm, sending Isabelle and the house to the land of the giants, where they were banished generations earlier. Now a crew led by the brave Elmont (Ewan McGregor) – including Roderick and Jack – are sent up the beanstalk to rescue Isabelle.
Director Bryan Singer and a team of writers strive to flesh out these characters. Roderick is a truly slimy villain, always looking for the main advantage. Jack and Isabelle are kindred spirits, clearly meant for each other even though he is a commoner and the inevitable defeat of Roderick ought to make Elmont the noble hero in waiting. Even King Brahmwell is given conflicting emotions, as when he has to decide whether to protect his kingdom by chopping down the beanstalk before Isabelle has returned.
The drawbacks are that the giants are all CGI and so even with the unnecessary 3-D, we’re always aware of their artificiality. There are exciting scenes aplenty if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, but we never really believe these giants are real, even with Bill Nighy voicing their leader General Fallon. Further, there’s a level of death and violence here that will be appealing to some viewers and appalling to others. While it’s PG-13, we see people stabbed, plummet to their deaths, get smashed against walls, and even eaten or stepped upon by giants. It’s no “Saw,” but it’s not a Disney cartoon either.
The performances are surprisingly good with the actors taking their roles with the utmost seriousness, and only going for laughs in character. McShane is effective as the king who is also a father and Tucci plays his role with relish. Nicholas Hoult (“Warm Bodies”) and Eleanor Tomlinson are most appealing as the young heroes, while McGregor is game even though the movie’s attention is clearly focused elsewhere.
In short, “Jack the Giant Slayer” is the sort of movie that will engage you if you let it, but if you have any objections then you may as well pass it by. The filmmakers are committed to their vision. You’re not going to change your mind if you don’t share it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.