Jack the Giant Slayer demonstrates the perils of too many cooks in the kitchen. Oft-delayed and interminably second-guessed, it arrives with groupthink plastered all over its milquetoast surface. It’s a project with a sound concept that needed an extra twist to become something special. The process of bringing it to screen slowly and methodically beat that all-important step out of it.
We’re left with a sort of Lord of the Rings lite, an epic fantasy adventure that settles for the expected and predictable when wonder and amazement are called for. The first signs of trouble appear before the credits role, with a complicated backstory rendered in indifferent animation about a long-ago war between giants and humans. The war now belongs to myth but the giants – exiled to a mystic realm in the sky – never truly went away. Cut to Jack (Nicholas Hoult), an unassuming farmboy who finds himself in possession of a handful of magic beans…
You all know the story, which the movie uses as the bare-frame skeleton of its plot. Director Bryan Singer and his posse of writers deserve credit for actually turning such a slight beginning into a viable narrative. Singer also finds the right tone for the piece, something witty and fun with an innate understanding of how fairy tales work. We know the steps – a beanstalk sprouts, a princess is lost and the unassuming Jack needs to cowboy up and show the world what he’s made of. Singer works hard to epitomize those notions while imbuing them with something richer and deeper to hold our attention.
Unfortunately, it never really takes hold. We’ve seen our share of fantasy landscapes like the kind lying at the top of that beanstalk, and while the evil giants look fantastic, the story’s predictable nature limits them to run-of-the-mill villainy. So too does the array of political schemes in the human kingdom fail to hold our attention, despite Stanley Tucci working overtime as an evil advisor to the well-meaning king (Ian McShane). They pad the screen time adequately, but treacherous second-in-commands are hardly the stuff of innovative filmmaking.
The same can be said of Jack’s burgeoning heroics: rescuing the princess fair and trying to stop a giant invasion in the process. Hoult possesses charisma to spare, but he can’t make much out of his character’s generic nice-guy qualities. Ewan McGregor struggles as well, playing a palace guardsman as dutiful Han Solo to Hoult’s Luke Skywalker. You can see the cast checking out one by one, as initial enthusiasm gives way to resolute drudgery and interest in the project wanes under its increasing banalities.
Speaking of which, a lot of last-minute shifts in the movie’s tone pop up throughout its run-of-the-mill storyline. Singer apparently wanted do something a little more hard-core, but the powers that be decided somewhere along the way to move in a more family-friendly direction. We get repeated set-ups for something dark and a little twisted, something evoking the grim side of the Brothers Grimm. Then the camera cuts away from the money shot, saving the PG-13 rating, but chickening out on its own premises and leaving the audience quietly frustrated in the process.
The larger storyline feels similar, with Singer’s auteurial instincts vanishing beneath bland, safe directing decisions. Jack the Giant Slayer quickly loses any belief in its own distinctiveness. Instead, it opts for lazy decisions in keeping with the corporate playbook: too afraid of upsetting any potential demographics to find an original point of view.
Hollywood knows how to give its product a pleasing sheen, and the technical elements on display are as polished as you’ll see. Then again, we don’t see anything here that The Lord of the Rings didn’t do with more excitement and imagination, to say nothing of the numerous less successful fantasy films that followed in its wake. Jack the Giant Slayer improves on the worst of them, with a basic competence that will prevent you from turning away. But with so many better examples so easily available – including the superior Oz the Great and Terrible just a week away – we don’t have to put up with the incessant hand-wringing that undoes this disappointing misfire. Jack the Giant Slayer stands as testament to filmmaking as product: hollow, soulless and merely pantomiming the brilliant storytelling it claims as its mantle.