In film fantasy farmhouses have always been a popular mode of transportation between our world and that of make-believe. Dorothy used her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s humble home in The Wizard of Oz (1939) to reach a land beyond her wildest dreams, and now the ramshackle abode of farmhand Jack does the same for Princess Isabelle in Warner Brothers 3D extravaganza Jack the Giant Slayer (2013).
Once upon a time, long, long ago, a mythical race of giants were stopped from invading our world by a brave and noble king called Erik, who then kept the giants at bay with the power of a magical crown. Many years later a young peasant boy named Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and a princess called Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a descendent of King Erik, each hear the legend, though their parents assure them that there is no truth in the old tale. Unfortunately however it seems there may be after Jack inadvertently opens a route between our world and that of the giants, with some magical beans he gets in a deal at the local market, with potentially catastrophic results.
Upon close inspection it is possible that Jack the Giant Slayer would never have got past the drawing board if the recent spate of films like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy had not been made. Such CGI laden blockbusters, along with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and its upcoming sequels, have opened the gateway for a more sophisticated interpretation of alternative fantastical realms, as well as the mythical creatures which inhabit them. Jackson’s approach has also ushered in a harsher realism, where people actually get hurt during fights and not in some glamourised Hollywood way à la Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
The best thing about Jack the Giant Slayer, and the pivotal aspect which makes it work, is the way director / producer Bryan Singer and his team have not created some sanitised make-believe world of sugar-sweet princesses and knights in shining armour, or glossed the story up in order to appeal to a younger audience. Despite being clearly aimed at the family market, the film’s 12A certificate in the UK (those aged under 12 years are only admitted if accompanied by an adult, aged at least 18 years) will exclude the very young, allowing the filmmakers to explore the more grisly possibilities of the popular fairytale.
Admittedly Jack and the gang remain amazingly well groomed despite what their giant foes throw at them (including everything from flaming trees to enormous church bells). But there are also characters who die (frequently and gruesomely), whilst the young hero himself shows real fear when he’s up against it. The giants don’t get off lightly either though, particularly during the film’s climatic battle sequence. They are by no means infallible, having to actually fight to beat the humans – the fact that at no point is it clear cut who will be victorious adds a genuine tension to the proceedings.
If there is anything to the film’s detriment it is the ubiquitous presence of 3D, without which no modern family film now seems complete. One can, at a stretch, see why it was decided to use the process, as it adds a sense of height and immensity to the beanstalk which forms a vertical bridge between our world and that of the giants as well as the central core around which the story grows. It looses its impact towards the end however, lending the great plains across which Jack and Isabelle flee towards the refuge of her father’s fortress city a disappointing lack of realism – this is the one piece of countryside in the film which looks too perfect to be authentic.
Any shortcomings in this area are (on the whole) compensated for by a cast who enter into the proceedings with undeniable gusto. The enthusiasm of the mainly British troupe – including Hoult and Tomlinson as the young leads, supported with appropriate regalness by Ian McShane as Isabelle’s father, King Brahmwell, and a suitably gruff Ewan McGregor as Elmont, the leader of the king’s elite guard – is infectious. Disappointingly though this does not follow through to the performance of the usually faultless Stanley Tucci. As Lord Roderick, the villain of the piece who is out to usurp the king and steal his kingdom, along with anything else he can get his hands on, Tucci should have carried off the role with effortless ease. However the mistake of hiding the American actor’s characteristic baldpate under a carpet of elongated limp curls detracts from any gravitas or sense of menace the character might have possessed.
The film finishes with a clever twist, leaving the door open to bring the story up to date in any possible sequel. However, after a less than promising opening in America, Warner Brothers will likely be waiting to see how the film fares internationally before deciding whether this particular tall tale has put down strong enough roots to encourage potential future growth.
Jack the Giant Slayer opened in the USA on March 1, 2013, and is released in the UK on March 22, 2013.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.