Monday, March 18, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) directed by Bryan Singer

Urgh, another epic, 3D, CGI laden adaptation of a public domain fairytale?  Is there anyone that’s even a big fan of Jack and the Beanstalk anyway?  I’m not even sure I remember it that well; kid buys magic beans, beanstalk grows something something giants.  Also, the buzz from across the Atlantic was that this was going to be one of the year’s notorious flops - 2013’s equivalent of John Carter. Sitting in the boomingly enormous SuperScreen at the o2 on Saturday morning nursing a faint hangover I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about what was to come.  

But, by the time the film was over, I was glad I’d dragged myself across London on a rainy morning.  The retold epic fairytale is becoming a bit of a tired subgenre, but Jack the Giant Slayer is about as good as reasonably possible given the subject matter.  This is the story of Jack (Nicholas Hoult) a pleasantly down-to-earth and pragmatic young farmhand.  He’s an orphan living with his uncle in tough times.  The uncle sends Jack to the castle to sell their horse, but quickly he gets sucked into a web of intrigue, and ends up with a pouch of beans, which Gremlins-like, you musn’t get wet.  Simultaneously, the rebellious Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) has run away from the palace to see the world.  Escaping on horseback she becomes trapped in a storm, and seeks shelter in Jack’s house.  But soon the beans are wet, and an enormous beanstalk sweeps the Princess off into the clouds, where, according to myth, a race of vicious giants dwell.  

Our heroes!  Left to right, Ian McShane as the King, Ewan McGregor as Elmont, Eleanor Thompson as Isabelle and Nicholas Hoult as Jack.
Jack the Giant Slayer’s fairytale kingdom is both slightly knowing and refreshingly uncynical.  For the most part it’s a film free of the dirt-caked medieval ‘realism’ popularised by Game of Thrones or the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The brightly coloured costumes, open green fields and blue skies frequently reminded me of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.  This Flynn-esque atmosphere is maintained throughout, the aim of the film to seemingly show as much swashbuckling as they can afford to. 

This attitude is exemplified in the performances of Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci.  McGregor plays Elmont, Chief of the Royal Guard.  He’s the type of character who, on some metatextual level, believes that he’s the hero of the story.  But, refreshingly, whenever Jack’s accidental heroism saves the day there isn’t a trace of bitterness in him.  In many ways, Elmont feels like a more likeable retread of McGregor’s Obi Wan Kenobi from the dire Star Wars prequels; he even says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” at one point.  Tucci’s scheming Roderick, on the other hand, is just one moustache twirl away from full on panto.  He’s even got a dopey, quisling sidekick (Ewen Bremner).  There’s been a bit of bad press lately, with Tucci saying that he hates acting to a green screen, and hates shooting in 3D.  You wouldn’t have thought so watching this - he seems be having a great time, chewing up scenery as diabolically as he can get away with.

Stanley Tucci as Roderick, a scumbag
With such strong supporting characters, it’s a bit of a pity that our leads are a bit flat.  Nicholas Hoult, so great in Warm Bodies, isn’t given a huge amount to do with Jack.  He begins as a good-hearted, instinctively brave and noble young man, and ends the film much the same way, gaining only a touch more confidence along the way.  For a character in a fantasy world, Jack is very contemporary, even down to wearing a (medieval looking) hoodie and jeans.  Princess Isabelle is also painfully bland.  There are promising sequences early in the film where her mother encourages her to fight back against gender determinism, but her character exists mainly to get captured, scream a lot and follow the male character’s plans.  As a result Jack and Isabelle’s romance never quite gets off the ground, and in the face of impending giant invasion, is a bit of an afterthought.

But then in a film with a title like Jack the Giant Slayer, you don’t want soppy romance, you want giants!  Huge terrifying brutes with a hunger for man-flesh!  Jack doesn’t disappoint.  These giants are fantastic creations, mountains of dirty, calloused leathery skin covered in wiry hair with jagged, stained teeth.  You can almost smell their awful breath when they fill the screen in closeup.  Very quickly they're established as a credible threat; menacing Jack and the soldiers he’s accompanying, effortlessly chewing through them.  There’s a fantastic shot where a soldier is running in terror as fast as he can from a giant.  He seems to be putting a good deal of distance between them, yet in a few swift and lengthy strides the giant scoops up the man and gruesomely disposes of him.

Cooking Ewan McGregor
There’s loads of great set pieces, my favourite being one where a giant has wrapped Ewan McGregor up in pastry and is cooking him in an oven (I bet this is someone’s sex fetish).  In a kind of reverse-scale Ratatouille, Jack must sneak around the enormous kitchen trying to find a way to dispose of the giant.  Similarly fun are the larger battles towards the end of the film, with soldiers being batted through the air like flies.

But for all their overt monsterishness, the film allows us a certain amount of sympathy for the giant’s plight. Fallon, the ‘chief’ giant possesses a palpable dignity and self-righteousness, a combination of some excellent CG animation and the peerless voice work of Bill Nighy.  To allow us to identify with the giants a bit, Singer occasionally shows us the world from their point of view.  In a rare intelligent use of 3D their view of the world is artificially foreshortened, making our heroes seem puny and insignificant.  In the giant’s kingdom we see evidence of their social hierarchy (although female giants are notable by their absence), and that they are clearly both intelligent and capable of morality.  All of these peeks into giant civilisation make them much more than mindless savages, but also imperceptibly ‘lesser’ than our human lead characters - making it slightly disturbing when they’re described as a “race” rather than as a species’, especially when we consider some of the  themes of the film.

Yer' giants.
Jack opens by showing us class division as illusory: we see young Jack and Isabelle being told the same bedtime story by their parents and reacting in the same way.  Singer interweaves these stories, cutting from Jack’s father in the farmhouse to Isabelle’s mother in the lush castle. The implication being that despite their financial status these two groups have much in common, and that class boundaries are surmountable, a notion borne out by the inevitable acceptance of Jack and the Princess’ romance.  The giants have less luck, the film portraying them as the epitome of Marx’s lumpenproletariat; a shiftless, semi-criminal underclass not contributing to socially useful production and lost to the notion of class consciousness

When this maniacal mob descends from the clouds and begins wreaking havoc in the kingdom, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie’s only recourse is to barricade themselves inside the opulent castle, searching frantically for the means of reasserting their “natural” dominance over the rabble at the gates.  The physical divide of the castle walls thus becomes a metaphor for divide and rule.  Jack is thus reassuring its largely bourgeois target audience that its got far more in common with a pompous but benevolent aristocracy than with the regionally accented “rough” proletariat busting their way out of the ghetto.

Giants of the world unite!
Admittedly, asserting your social rights by baking the charming Ewan McGregor into a pastry isn’t going to win over hearts and minds anytime soon.  But Jack becomes trapped between showing the giants both as disgusting, unhygienic vicious monsters and as intelligently, righteously furious.  So, when they’re subjugated in the film’s finale, it’s bittersweet.  On one hand, yay - they’ve stopped biting people’s heads off, and on the other it’s a little sad seeing these proud people forced to grovel and scrape in the dirt before being packed back off to what amounts to a floating penal colony.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a film about magic beans, but it’s frustrating that the film is content to portray “a” working class as vicious, destructive monsters without properly exploring why this might be, or even to consider creating a resolution to the story where everyone can co-exist peacefully and equally.  There’s a bizarre epilogue to the film that I won’t spoil, but its inclusion is designed to make us consider these characters and events as something other than a remote fairytale, and think about what implications the story might have for us here and now. 

But all of this is going on under the surface of a mostly very entertaining slice of adventure.  There’s a few iffy performances from our leads, but Jack the Giant Slayer moves along at a brisk pace and successfully papers over a lot of the cracks.  Jack is flawed, but much better than I thought it would be and far from the embarrassing flop it’s being painted as.


Jack the Giant Slayer is on general release from 22nd March 2012

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