Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer is a fun, full-blooded fantasy – a film that drips with atmosphere, is filled with adventure and imagination, and is lovingly built upon the very archetypes we all know so well. Far from an innocuous fairy tale intended only for young children, it thrills just as much as it delights, which is to say that it’s intended for adults as well. The film is a triumph of art direction and special effects, none of which are diminished much by the picture-dimming process of 3D. The technical work notwithstanding, Singer has seen to it that the story and characters are just as engaging as the visuals; what we have here is a classic tale of good versus evil, forbidden love, a king and his kingdom, a magical land in the sky, and valiant acts that always involve spectacular stunts.
The film, of course, draws inspiration from the famous folktale Jack and the Beanstalk. In its most well-known incarnation, a poor farm boy named Jack sells his cow for magic beans, which then grow into a gigantic beanstalk reaching up into the clouds; when Jack climbs the stalk, he finds the home of a man-eating giant, finds the giant’s treasures, and escapes with a magical harp and the hen that laid golden eggs. For the film, Singer and screenwriters Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney alter and expand this basic plotline into a thoroughly entertaining action/adventure yarn. It opens with a rhyming legend of a war between humans and an entire tribe of giants, the latter living in a land high up in the sky. A king was able to control them because of his crown, in which the heart of a fallen giant had been smelted into the metal. When the king died, he was buried with his crown, along with magic beans capable of creating a gigantic beanstalk, the bridge between land and sky.
Two children grew up on this tale. One was Jack, the son of a poor farmer. The other was Princess Isabelle, whose mother, the Queen, encouraged her to explore the world and learn from it, for experience would help her on the path to becoming queen. Ten years pass. Jack (Nicholas Hoult), still a farm boy, now lives with his stodgy uncle, his father having died of plague. Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), still lives in the palace of her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane). Both Jack and Isabelle yearn for adventure in their lives; the former is easily distracted by his own daydreaming and often doesn’t get work done, while the latter has taken to sneaking out of the palace and visiting peasant villages. When the two meet at a small community theater, Jack defending Isabelle’s honor against a gang of drunken louts, he initially doesn’t realize she’s a princess. It doesn’t take him long to figure it out, however.
Jack sells his horse to a desperate monk, who pays with a handful of ordinary-looking beans. The monk assures Jack that they’re priceless artifacts, and warns him to not get them wet. The monk, we quickly learn, is on the run from Isabelle’s intended, Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the King’s loathsome and power-hungry adviser; he has already stolen the crown the fabled king was buried with, and is now plotting to get his hands on the beans. Needless to say, one of the beans Jack was given accidentally gets planted under the floorboards of his home and is watered by a rainstorm, giving rise to a monstrous beanstalk. The house ascends with it. So does Isabelle, as she had run away yet again and found herself at Jack’s doorstep after getting lost in the storm. A rescue effort, led by Elmont, the daring leader of the King’s elite guard (Ewan McGregor), is soon underway. Jack and Roderick join him, albeit for very different reasons.
Once the ascent is made into the clouds, we discover the land of the giants, a fantastic world of craggy cliffs, green meadows, cascading waterfalls, and huge faces carved into stone. We also discover the giants themselves, disgusting and warmongering hulks brought to life via performance capture animation. The leader of the giants, who looks uncannily real, is a two-headed monster collectively named Fallon. The head that can speak in clear sentences is voiced and performed by Bill Nighy, while John Kassir voices and performs the head that’s developmentally disabled and can only speak in grunts. Rest assured, Isabelle is captured by the giants, Roderick uses the magic crown to become the giants’ king, and Jack is well on his way to earning the distinction referenced in the film’s title. In due time, the giants will fall to Earth and wage war against King Brahmwell. And of course, Jack and Isabelle will fall in love, despite the fact that he’s a commoner.
I was surprised at how appropriately Singer depicted the giants making meals out of men. He reveals just enough to let the audience know that someone has been chomped on, but not so much that it becomes gory and disturbing. The filmmakers clearly understood that, while there would be nothing gained by sanitizing the material, there would also be nothing gained by being sensationalistic. Will children be traumatized by those scenes? You obviously know your kids better than I do, but broadly speaking, my guess would be no, certainly not with today’s trends in video games and TV shows. In my personal opinion, I think everyone in the family will have a great deal of fun watching Jack the Giant Slayer. It has everything a fantasy needs – heroes and villains, monsters and tyrants, chivalry and romance, castles and forests, royalty and peasants.