Once upon a time, Hollywood thought it was a brilliant idea to “re-imagine” old folk and fairy tales to bring them to life for a modern audience. Oh, who am I kidding? Hollywood loves doing that. It’s because it doesn’t take a butt ton of money to secure the rights to make those movies. Ever wonder why we see so many adaptations of Cinderella’s story or get a new sort of Beauty and the Beast every so often? Yeah, that’s why. Anyway, last year’s addition to the ever-growing heap of movies with a fairy tale bent was Jack the Giant Slayer. I’d briefly considered seeing it while it was in theaters. Briefly. As you can tell, I did not and ended up watching it thanks to HBO Go. Was it worth my time? Let’s find out!
I’m going to give you the short answer: No, not really. Now, you can go about your business or keep reading to find out why I wasn’t terribly fond of this film. I’m not saying I hated it or anything. It was just so decidedly “meh.” Fortunately, I didn’t expect all that much from the movie so I can’t say that I was disappointed. Still, with my low expectations, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to at least attempt to exceed them. That was not to be, apparently.
Well, let’s get the plot synopsis rolling. The film starts us with parallel scenes of parents reading bedtime stories to their children about the time when giants menaced the countryside only to be put in their place by the good King Erik who fashioned a crown that controlled them. The boy hearing the story is Jack and the girl is Princess Isabella. The fairy tale with kind of crappy CGI is their favorite story. It’s like they’re going to end up meeting one day and be destined for each other despite their backgrounds!
Time passes and a grown-up Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is sent to sell a horse (not a cow, alas) at the market to help pay for the upkeep of his uncle’s farm. As the story usually goes, this doesn’t turn out the way that Jack expects and despite saving a beautiful young woman (Eleanor Tomlinson) from some nasty characters, all he has to show for his equine companion is some magic beans. This transaction is not well-received at home and his uncle storms off in search of a way to salvage the situation. Meanwhile, the young woman from the market is actually Princess Isabella and she’s furious with her father, King Brahmwell (criminally under-used Ian McShane), for betrothing her to his chancellor, Roderick (Stanley Tucci). As happens in this sorts of stories, she runs away and ends up in Jack’s humble abode above where a bean had been tossed during the earlier confrontation between uncle and nephew. The bean gets wet (never get them wet!) and a beanstalk grows, taking the house and Isabella up with it.
So, the rest of the movie proceeds along the expected route as Jack joins Sir Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and his team on their voyage up the beanstalk to rescue the princess while Roderick and his minion, Wicke (Ewen Bremner) plot to take over the kingdom with the assistance of the giants and the newly-recovered magic crown. There are giants, people being eaten, beanstalks all over the place, and a climactic battle between the forces of good and the forces of giant.
Maybe if I was a kid seeing this movie, I might have been enthusiastic. Even then, I feel like I wanted more out of my fairy tale movies than the same old tropes thrown at me in shiny, new packaging. Sure, there was some great CGI after the terrible stuff used during the story-telling sequence. Heck, I even liked the fairy tale within the fairy tale that the parents read to the kids. It was nice, ominous, and well-worded. It’s just that the rest of the movie felt lackluster. It felt like they weren’t even trying. As much as some of the cast members looked like they were enjoying their roles, it seemed like something was missing. There was just no real spark or charm to this movie. It just sort of existed. I’m glad I didn’t pay any money to see this movie. I’d likely have left the film feeling cheated out of my hard-earned cash.
The movie’s advertising team did a great job of trying to push Princess Isabella as some sort of feisty heroine. The movie puts her in shiny armor and she protests her father’s wishes because all she wants to do is wander the kingdom and get to know the people while he wants to keep her indoors. You know. That rebellious princess archetype that the girls like these days. Other than arguing, she doesn’t do much. I remember ranting to my parents later that her role could have been filled by an inanimate object and the movie wouldn’t have been any worse off. She could have just been a singing harp that could hardly move on her own for all the agency her character ultimately had. That’s not to say that Eleanor Tomlinson didn’t do a bad job as the princess. She was enjoyable to watch and it’s not her fault that the character was lacking. She was just written that way.
Hollywood’s never going to stop making fairy tale movies. It’s just good business to polish an old fairy tale off every few years to see what they can do with it. I just hope Hollywood stops throwing all of its money at the latest special effect technology and instead invests that in quality writing and craftsmanship. Hire all of the great actors you want and give them all of the bells and whistles, but don’t be surprised if sub-par writing and a lack of true charm in your movie causes you to lose money. It’d be better business to make a smarter movie than insult the intelligence of an audience thirsting for a little something more.