Topic: JACK THE GIANT SLAYER review by Dorkman
An interesting thing I’ve noticed about Hollywood history: the most infamous box office bombs are often not as bad — to me, anyway — as their infamy would imply. Some of them even manage to evolve into classics, but the ones that don’t — removed a few years from expectation and the swirling rumorsphere of behind-the-scenes drama — taken on their own, many of them are perfectly fine movies.
WATERWORLD, for example, is a perfectly fine movie. If its budget hadn’t gotten famously out of hand it probably would’ve been successful, if not wildly so. But the prevailing narrative of creative hubris and throwing good money after bad overwhelmed it, spoiling the word of mouth before anyone had even bothered to see it, and to this day its title can be used as a shorthand for Hollywood folly (supplanting the previous reigning champ, HEAVEN’S GATE).
JOHN CARTER is a fine movie. A little dull, fails to sufficiently update the material for a modern audience, but man, I have seen way, way worse. Hell, I saw way worse the same year starring the same guy. It’s not that JOHN CARTER was especially bad — it’s just that it wasn’t especially good, either. Not good enough to overcome the narrative surrounding it, of rewrites and bad marketing and an ever-ballooning budget.
Now, let's talk about JACK THE GIANT SLAYER.
JTGS isn’t a tremendously bad movie. It just isn’t a good one. Less a reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk than a fairly straightforward retelling with more characters and action, the film’s worst sin is its simple failure to bring anything significantly new to the table. Despite the added characters and action, despite the expansion of the mythology to facilitate a more expansive plot, if you’ve seen pretty much any movie since and/or including STAR WARS, JTGS holds no surprises.
It’s Hero’s Journey 101 — the simple farmboy who through an adventure becomes a great hero, and there’s a princess somewhere in there too. You know who the good guys are, you know who the bad guys are, you know what all of them are going to do at every step of the way and you’re just waiting for the film to get it over with. It cribs a number of beats from other films, including a horses-fleeing-giant-monsters sequence straight out of LORD OF THE RINGS, and a few moments I recognized from, of all things, RETURN TO OZ. The film does exactly one unexpected thing, right at the end, but it’s only unexpected because it’s out of left field and stupid.
If I had to name the film’s second worst sin, I would have to say it’s that the villain’s plan makes no sense. In expanding the mythology, the filmmakers have added to the magic beans the concept of a magic crown which allows the wearer to command the giants.*
(* I should point out that the crown is not what could be considered a “second magic bean,” as both the crown and the beans themselves were created by a cult of monk-wizards. But there is still an irony, in that the film with literal magic beans makes an attempt to justify them.)
So what the villain (played by Stanley Tucci, doing what he can with what little he’s given) plans to do is use the magic beans to raise a beanstalk to the land of the giants, and there take command of them as an army to conquer first the kingdom of Cloister, where the story takes place**, and then all the lands around it.
(** And the name of which I only remember because it’s so on the nose, what with the generic Princess feeling trapped in her life of wealth and plenty while peasants like Jack live on the verge of starvation. And I’m supposed to sympathize with her for some reason.)
Setting aside that "rule/destroy the world" villain schemes don’t really make any sense to me in general, two aspects of the setup in this particular film result in it making even less sense.
1) He already has both the magic beans and the crown in his possession. The story gets kicked off when one of the monk-wizards steals the beans from him, and gives them to Jack before being caught. Jack takes them home, his uncle throws them out, they grow -- you know the story. But... if the dude already secretly had both the beans and the crown, what was he waiting for?
2) The villain in question is, at the start of the story, betrothed to the princess. He’s already in line to become king. All he has to do is continue to play the waiting game and he’ll be the legitimate ruler of Cloister, able to command and conquer to his heart’s content without even bothering with the giants.
All told, there’s very little reason for the Tucci character to even exist in the story, except that without him there would be no character even pretending to be an antagonist for most of the story.
If the other actors turn in bland, by-the-numbers performances, it’s just because the characters are written that way. The most interesting performances, to me, actually come from the giants. Something about them doesn’t quite sell in terms of the texturing — I’d have to see it again to be able to articulate exactly what, and that ain’t gonna happen — but the animation of any given “hero” giant has more subtlety and personality than all the human characters put together. Bill Nighy as the giant leader General Fallon is once again unmistakably Bill Nighy tearing it up, no matter how many artists’ hands his performance may have passed through, and honorable mention for animation/performance goes to the “Cook Giant,” as well as Fallon’s rival, the giant Fumm. (Yeah. You see what they do there.)
I appreciate that the film bothered to try to tell a story — it’s sad that I feel it’s worth awarding points on that basis, but there it is — but for the price tag it better blow the fucking doors off the place, and if it’s not going to do it with the story, it better do it with the visuals. But the film is shot and edited in textbook coverage — what I’ve often called “workmanlike” filmmaking — and while the visual effects are very good (except for the animated prologue, a rather embarrassing knock-off of the HELLBOY 2 puppet sequence), the visuals they’re being asked to deliver aren’t especially novel or breathtaking. Even the production design is boring and derivative; despite the way the film so desperately wants to bring the same kind of weight to the fantasy as LOTR, I didn’t get a sense of a deep and thought-out culture. It’s just a bunch of generic armor and banners and leopard print trim, and Nick Hoult’s “peasant” garments looked almost identical to the jeans and hoodie he wore in WARM BODIES.
In the world of the film at the time of this story, the kingdom has made the mistake of letting history fall into legend, of believing the giants to be nothing but a story, or forgetting about them entirely. And it suggests in the end that, following the story, the world has made the same mistake. They (spoiler for the stupid thing at the end: WE!) have forgotten, and may someday pay the price.
I would suggest, to the contrary, that quickly and completely forgetting this film ever happened is the wisest — and kindest — course of action.