1 Apr 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer Movie Review

So we finally went to watch this last night, and were both very pleasantly surprised to find that it was a lot better than expected. Perhaps it was because we had been so badly disappointed by the last fairy-tale adaptation we had watched (ruined primarily by Kristen Stewart's truly awful acting). But Jack the Giant-Slayer turned out to be an engaging and enjoyable film with likeable characters, a remarkably well-played secondary villain and eye-catching special effects.

Bryan Singer has done well by taking one of the less memorable children's stories, about a not particularly intelligent farm-boy who exchanges a cow for a handful of beans, and turning it into an exciting fantasy adventure, with enough twists in the storyline to keep his audience interested and just the right amount of wit to keep them amused without turning it into a farce. His addition of a secondary plot, with its own villain (played by the excellent Stanley Tucci), was an especially good decision that adds some complexity to the original fairy-tale.

Nicholas Hoult puts in a balanced and credible performance in the lead role. Unlike the American actresses who were so badly cast in the lead in Red Riding Hood and in Snow White and the Huntsman, Hoult flows quite naturally into his role as an English country boy, which is hardly surprising given his background.

Ewan McGregor is also very well-cast as Elmont, the dashing captain of the palace guard. His is the character that would be expected to be the hero in a one-dimensional Hollywood adventure film (a fact that is alluded to in his confrontation with the scheming secondary villain), but who is forced to concede, albeit gracefully, that in this story at least, he must be content to play the second fiddle. A role like this is easy to play passably, but difficult to do well. McGregor does it well, and the viewer is left wondering whether Elmont, whose job it is to protect the princess, might not himself harbour a secret affection for her.

Stanley Tucci as Lord Roderick

And Stanley Tucci (perhaps best remembered for his role as the perverted Mr. Harvey in The Lovely Bones, for which he received an Academy Award nomination) puts in a memorable performance as Lord Roderick, the secondary villain. Roderick, although a thoroughly dishonourable kind of fellow, is not entirely evil, but simply a schemer who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of wealth and power. Although the viewer can never quite sympathize with him, it is also not entirely possible to wish him dead, perhaps because he does tend to remind most of us of someone we actually know in real life.

One of the more interesting subtleties of this film is the way in which it turns the standard Hollywood trope of the “British baddie” (taken to its most nauseating extreme in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, in which an all-American Robin Hood fights, with the aid of his equally American younger brother and an African-American sidekick inserted for the sake of political correctness, to save his Italian-American Maid Marian from a very British Sherriff of Nottingham) on its head. Instead, in Jack the Giant-Slayer, we see the archetypal English sixth-form boy Nicholas Hoult rescue his lovely English rose Eleanor Tomlinson, with the help of a Scottish guard captain and a Cockney guardsman (played by Eddie Marsan), from the machinations of an American villain. Were it not for the fact that Singer is himself American, one might be tempted to wonder if the film was designed to sub-liminally persuade the Scots to vote to stay in the Union in their forthcoming referendum.

My own liking for this film, however, probably derives to a large extent from the way Singer has tried to stay true to the norms of high fantasy. When I first saw the trailer, I was dismayed by what seemed to me to be a superabundance of plate armour. There was one scene that I found particularly disturbing, in which both Ian McShane and Ewan McGregor appeared to be clad in it.

Look closely, its studded leather!!

Of course anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons would know that “in reality”, plate armour would have been incredibly expensive (was it 1000 GP?) and therefore only likely to have been used by very powerful (or high-level) characters. I have therefore always disliked films in which entire armies run around in plate armour. My most hated such scene is the one from First Knight, in which a slightly overweight Richard Gere casts aside his full plate helmet as though it were made of plastic and falls sobbing to the ground.

So I was pleased to see that Ewan McGregor’s character was clad, not in plate-mail, but in studded leather! Of course, I would have preferred it if he were wearing a more natural looking dark brown (instead of black), but still, it was studded leather. Yes, Ian McShane was wearing full plate armour, but he was the king, and so it was reasonable for him to have an expensive suit of armour.

General Fallon the Ettin

And for the leader of the giants, Singer has...an ettin! Not a larger nastier giant. Nor a giant with some knowledge of dark magic. But quite simply, an ettin. An ettin. There I was, gushing all over myself and explaining to my wife just what this meant. That ettins were not actually creatures from mythology or folklore but just something that Gary Gygax had dreamed up for Dungeons and Dragons. Until she coolly burst my bubble by pointing out that, in fact, ettins were creatures from the world of Narnia who lived in a place called Ettinsmoor.

In any case, even if it was not Gygax but C.S. Lewis who first invented them, this particular ettin adhered very closely to the description in the original Monster Manual (right down to the second head that never quite sees eye-to-eye with the first one) and I loved him for it.

One major complaint that I did have, however, was that the film is set in a world lacking what I like to think of as “depth”. Part of the on-screen action is set in the realm of the Giants, which is a floating land hovering in the sky, somewhere between heaven and earth. But almost everything else seems to take place in either the King’s castle, or on Jack’s farm.

The Kingdom of Cloister, as viewed from Jack's Beanstalk. Very picturesque, but perhaps a little underpopulated?

When Jack sets out to sell his uncle’s horse (instead of a cow as in the fairy-tale), he travels directly to the small settlement within the castle’s outer walls. Similarly, when the princess rides out of her father’s castle, she ends up almost inevitably at Jack’s place. No other towns or villages seem to exist. There is mention of an abbey, but it is never actually seen. The Kingdom of Cloister in which Jack and Elmont live seems to be made up of just a single castle and a handful of farms. 

Cosmeston Medieval Village

This is a pity, because, as I have discussed here, it is precisely this kind of “depth” that makes it such a pleasure to watch Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth on-screen. It would have cost Singer very little to achieve such “depth”, because, unlike Jackson, he would not have needed to build an entire hobbit village from scratch. There are any number of film sets that he could have used to create a medieval village scene (the Cosmeston Medieval Village in Wales, for example, which was used for the village of Ealdor in the BBC television series Merlin).

Populating such a village scene too would have been a fairly straightforward (and relatively inexpensive) task, as the extras involved would not have needed elaborate make-up to make them look like elves or dwarves or hobbits. Old rags cost very little money, and extras can be asked (at no additional cost) to avoid shaving for a few days in order to look unkempt and suitably medieval. It is regrettable that Singer has not made the effort to give his world this extra "depth", because it is just this kind of attention to detail that makes the difference between a fairly decent fantasy film and a really good one.

On the whole, Jack the Giant-Slayer is an enjoyable film. It will probably not win any Oscars, but it is certainly worth a trip to the cinema, especially if you have younger children.

1 comment:

  1. I really like it and had a fun time. My only real trouble with the story was the removal of the beanstalk. Really, really no one thought about it landing.