Some movies are profound and some are life-changing and some move you deeply to the bottom of your soul and some are laughably terrible. And some are just a lot of fun. We go to movies for lots of reasons, but surely just wanting to pass an agreeable couple of hours is one of them.
That’s Jack the Giant Slayer. It’s pretty fun. It looks great and it’s got attractive actors in the leads and unattractive actors playing villains, as God intended. It got a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which feels about right, but it’s not one of those ‘love ’em or hate ’em’ movies. Reactions will fall within a few degrees to either side of ‘meh.’ Your mileage may vary.
So Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a ‘farm boy.’ A tenant farmer, as he helpfully clarifies, which suggests a social class who would not, one thinks, ordinarily rub shoulders with a Princess. He lives in the vaguely British-y kingdom’ of ‘Cloister,’ with costume and design choices suggesting settings ranging from Victorian Hapsburg to the Third Crusade. He goes to town to sell, not a cow, but a horse-and-cart, and is side-tracked by a theatrical entertainment, during which he sees, and is able to rescue from inebriated louts, the Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson).
This play-within-a-movie theatrical entertainment, however, recounts this society’s most important myth, of King Erik, who defeated the Giants and sent them back to their kingdom in the sky. Let me say that any origin story involving a heroic and virtuous king named Erik (yay!) already has the ring of verisimilitude.
Isabelle (suitably young, healthy and attractive, as all princesses must be), is betrothed to Stanley Tucci. Ick. Tucci plays Roderick, a local butt-ugly Lord with bad teeth. He’s busy plotting, not for her lovely hand and person, which is what we initially think, but for something even more sinister. Somehow this involves magic beans. Which somehow find themselves in the possession of farm boy Jack. Leading to one bean carelessly tossed aside. Suddenly growing. Shooting Isabelle (unaccountably a guest in Jack’s hovel), up into the sky. To a substantial cliff-and-forest Giant kingdom anchored, one presumes, in a cloud.
Throughout all of this, the King (Ian McShane), is ably served by the doughty knight, Elmont (Ewan McGregor). I’m so delighted to get to use the word ‘doughty’ (how often do you get to?) but it fits Elmont/McGregor/Obi-Wan to a tee. McGregor is terrific in the movie. He and some soldiers head up the vine, taking young Jack with them, and also Roderick and his pet fop/assassin Wicke (Ewen Bremner). As they climb, Roderick and Wicke knock the soldiers off, one at a time. So the rescue force is quite depleted when Jack and Elmont show up to rescue the Princess from the nasty/wasty Giants.
Head Giant is Bill Nighy, playing one of the two heads resting atop Giant General Fallon’s massive torso. All the Giants are disgusting looking, which clues us in that they’re evil Giants. But they unaccountably stop their depredations when faced with King Erik’s crown, which would seem to have magic Giant-taming properties. (This does get explained, btw, though not convincingly). And Jack rescues Ewan McGregor from a pig-in-a-blanket demise, killing the Giant’s booger-eating cook. I mean, the Giants’ chef eats his own boogers. Ewwwww.
And that moment gives some idea who the audience is for this thing–it’s thirteen-year-old boys. Makes perfect sense. It’s a movie about Jack and the Bean Stalk; it’s not a movie for hipsters. Or oldsters. It’s got lots of action sequences, some of them really exciting. It’s got a pretty girl wearing cleavage-y dresses. It’s got Ewan McGregor leaping about and swinging from vines, in full Erroll Flynn mode. It turns Jack and the Beanstalk into an action movie.
Nicholas Hoult was also the star of Warm Bodies, a way funner movie. But he’s fine–charismatic and soulful and with good comic timing. Eleanor Tomlinson is lovely, and runs about convincingly, but she isn’t given much to do. Ewan McGregor kind of walks off with the movie, honestly–takes kind of a dumb part (and horrible hairstyle) and fills it out with physical energy and charisma. I mean, I could wish it were better, but it’s a perfectly agreeable action movie based on Jack and the Beanstalk. It doesn’t match what, say, Into the Woods does with that particular fairy tale; fill it with theatrical magic and humor and an explication of theodicy and marvelous music. (Theodicy: attempts to reconcile the existence of a loving God with the problem of evil–an astonishing subject for a Broadway musical; but Sondheim pulls it off.)
So one might wish this movie were better than it was. But it was what it was–an entertaining and well-acted trifle. My wife and I enjoyed our date. Do I recommend it? Let me put it like this: you could do worse.