Jack the Giant Slayer
I can’t say I’m very surprised to discover that the director of Superman Returns has no sense of fun. Bryan Singer has mostly disguised this for the best part of two decades by shooting thrillers, or making sure his comic book movies take themselves very seriously. Jack is his stab at a family fantasy movie, and he’s all-at-sea.
Not that Singer has any great claim to auteurship. A few of us thought he had the makings of a voice when his sophomore film, The Usual Suspects, sprang out of nowhere. It showed astonishing confidence, and still ranks as far and away his best picture. Because it was in a crime story, and came in the wake of Tarantino’s reinvigoration of the genre, there was an expectancy that he and writer Christopher McQuarrie might be the next big indie voices on the scene. Instead he quickly settled into the role of slightly-above-average journeyman with the first two X-Men. Then Superman returned. It was as handsomely lensed as ever from his regular cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel but utterly deaf to narrative drive. After the strengths of X2 in that department, it was a double disappointment (he gave up the third X-Men to make it). Valkryie was decent, solid, respectable. Unremarkable. All became clear. Welcome to Bryan Singer’s oeuvre.
Which is why I at least expected Jack to be decent, solid, respectable and unremarkable. I wasn’t quite prepared for how inert the whole enterprise is, though. Singer’s a competent director even here, but his film barely has a pulse. This is formula, production-line movie making, of the sort where no one is quite sure why they ended up making a film of Jack and the Beanstalk, less still one that cost nearly $200m (which is what it grossed at cinemas; there’s no dressing that up positively).
As per the fairy tale, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) gets hold of some magic beans and it isn’t long before one gets soggy and sprouts (I have no idea how he keeps his other beans dry throughout, as he’s regularly soaked to the skin). There are a host of divergences, designed to beef up the plot but lacking any real drama. Roderick is set to marry king Ian McShane’s daughter Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson). He’s a rotter of course, as he’s played by Stanley Tucci, and plans to supplant the king. And rein over the giants at the top of the beanstalk. With a crown he has fit for purpose. It’s all a bit convoluted and simultaneously uninvolving. Tucci generally lifts anything he’s in, but he has nothing to sink his teeth into; no great lines and a disappointing shortage of overacting. His best moment sees him pushing a hapless knight off a cliff, and it’s not all that funny. Having Tucci as a bad guy is designed to ensure that Jack and Isabelle have the blame for all the death and destruction shifted away from them (it is their fault really, though).
Lending unmemorable support are Ralph Brown, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner and Ewan McGregor. The latter starts off looking like he’s going to have a whale of a time, coming across as amusingly debonair and over-confident. Unfortunately the script and dialogue fail to sustain him, and he’s left being a jolly good sport. He’s even been persuaded to utter, “I’ve got a jolly bad feeling about this” at one point.
There are points where Hoult reminded me a little of a very young Hugh Grant; appropriate given that they both starred in About a Boy. Hoult’s a decent actor, but here he’s shackled into coming on as yet another bland Brit pretty boy star (see also Ben Barnes). There’s no shame in being an actor rather than a star; certainly, that’s been McGregor’s fate despite flirtations with the big leagues. As it stands, Hoult just reflects the inoffensive lethargy Singer brings to bear. The costume department are one step ahead in informing the “don’t give a shit” tone when they give Jack a peasant leather hoodie to wear. It was all the rage amongst young farmhands in such quasi-mythical times.
If the beanstalk is reasonable, the giants are a let down. Rendered with CGI rather than prosthetics, they have the usual problem of a lack of physicality. They also lack presence, and personality (yes, there’s one who snots everywhere, but that’s not really what I mean). The “giants” on a budget of peanuts in Trollhunter were much, much, more expressive, weird and humorous. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a scene that has any spark to it; the giant’s kitchen at least has the attraction of scale, with McGregor being turned into a sausage roll.
It rather reinforces what a strange decision it was to turn this into a live action movie. Surely it’s natural home is as an animation, where the visuals will be seamless and there’s an opportunity for various light-hearted approaches (the traditional Disney take on fairy tales, or the Shrek-it-up DreamWorks angle)?
For some reason Singer adds insult to tedium by foisting a miserable prologue and epilogue on the viewer; the idea is to show the power of storytelling, I suspect. But when the opening is furnished with CGI that would have looked crap in the mid-90s (Its supposed to be basic, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be distractingly bad) and the ending makes a frankly baffling attempt to connect the kingdom of the story with the British monarchy (is Singer one of those soggy misplaced anglophiles?) it has the opposite effect. The credited writers on this flaccid pudding are Darren Lemke (who has worked on DreamWorks; Shrek Forever After and this year’s Turbo), Dan Studney (TV mostly) and old pal Christopher McQuarrie - who resolutely fails to polish the giant turd (David Dobkin also gets a story credit; all those cooks and an inedible broth).
Singer’s decision to return to the X-Men franchise (which he’s continued involvement with as a producer) is a sure sign that he’s creatively bereft. Perhaps he never really had much impetus. McQuarrie seems a lot more lively and invigorated as a director, and he can write too (well, most of the time). If you were really desperate for a beanstalk fix, you’d be advised to investigate a screen version of the tale that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year; Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor, and just a wee giant, in The Goodies and the Beanstalk.