That tagline — “You don’t know Jack” — is going to be run into the ground over the course of the next week or so, as director Bryan Singer’s latest feature about a farmhand named Jack, some magic beans and an army of angry giants threatens to overtake the multiplexes. At first glance, Jack the Giant Slayer is yet another contemporary retelling of a classic fairy tale, like the dreadful Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters or blandly accommodating Snow White and the Huntsman.
Hollywood is now in the business, much like the literary market, of repackaging old storytelling forms in modern get-up in order to appease a target demographic that no longer feels the need to read the originals because those stories don’t speak to them in their familiar language of emoticons or 140 characters at a time.
It is heartening though to sit down to watch Singer’s tale because he refuses to give us what we’ve come to expect from these mainstream diversions. Jack the Giant Slayer enters into its narrative via the most old-fashioned of devices — a shared bedtime story.
The young Jack, played by Michael Self, hands a stylized edition of the story of the defeat of the giants to his father (Tim Foley) so that he can breathe richer life and meaning into the words, while somewhere deep in the halls of a castle, a young princess named Isabelle (Sydney Rawson) listens to her mother, the Queen (Tandi Wright), pass along the same adventures and dreams of embarking on her own wild journey.
And in the blink of an eye, ten years later, we’ve got the nearly grown Jack (Nicholas Hoult) slaving away on the dying farm of his uncle (Christopher Fairbank).
Jack’s father is now dead and there are few prospects left to Jack and his uncle, so he’s heading into town to sell the last horse to buy a few provisions. Jack gets distracted, though, by a theatrical re-enactment of the tale of the giants and stumbles into a situation where he ends up defending the honor of a young woman (Eleanor Tomlinson) who happens to be the older Isabelle.
In the jumble of ensuing events, Jack loses his cart, gets duped into trading the horse for a pouch of supposedly magic beans and later on opens his door to a rain-soaked Isabelle, seeking shelter from a bad storm and an impending marriage to a sniveling duke named Roderick (Stanley Tucci), with eyes on more than the pretty princess or one small kingdom. Good King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) has admirable intentions and an honorable knight named Elmont (Ewan McGregor) ever-ready to do what is right, but everyone fails to realize the magnitude of the situation because the idea of magic and giants is something they’ve all stopped believing in long ago. But giants are very real indeed and it will take good, pure hearts to save the day.
I know that all sounds corny and as old-fashioned as can be, but Singer hasn’t lost faith in such things and he’s invested this film with every ounce of his child-like spirit, despite the fact that he’s employing an arsenal of CGI to bring his story to life. It is clear that he believes in magic and the magic of the movies and there’s the sense that he’s willing to trust that we will surrender to the wonder and artifice before us.
He’s aided and abetted by a cast that, from top to bottom, buys into his passion. Hoult, fresh off his recent run as a love-struck zombie in Warm Bodies, has wide eyes and an innocent appeal that flies in the face of the blank, dreamy stares of this generation’s supernatural heartthrobs. He’s sweet and earnest without a touch of irony or the post-ironic posing that infects teen stars today.
Tomlinson longs to be more than a damsel-in-distress, but the story’s not eager to transform her into an action heroine and so she may seem slightly off, in terms of our modern sensibilities, but she’s right in the pocket of her times.
McGregor and McShane, each in their own ways, embody more of this medieval chivalry, but they allow us to see the charming intent behind it and realize that not everything can and should be reconfigured by our current perspective.
Seeing and appreciating a classic worldview within its own context is how we better understand who and what we are today.
Jack the Giant Slayer, if taken for what it is, might make us consider the existence of magic, just like Singer’s once and future efforts to convince us that there might be mutants among us. (PG-13) Grade: B
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