Thursday, April 11, 2013

Jack The Giant Slayer

Remember when Bryan Singer was challenging film narratives with The Usual Suspects or creating (with Sam Raimi) the modern superhero flick with X-Men and X-Men 2?

Good times.

He went off the rails with Superman Returns, I guess, though at least that's different. He's yet to find his way back on track and now has given us the latest in modern fairytale hash, Jack The Giant Slayer.

I couldn't get The Boy interested in seeing this. "It looks so stupid," he'd say. "But Bryan Singer," I'd say. "The Usual Suspects!" He'd frown and say "but...stooopid..." I really had no argument—the posters do look stupid. (I read The Boy the entirety of Grimm's tales when he was a youngster, and he still remembers the stories.)

By chance, however, I was up north visiting a friend of mine whose wife has similar views on entire genre of movies, and he wanted to see a film in one of those genres, which given our time constraints, left us with this movie—and in 3D. Ugh.

My buddy leaned in about 20 minutes into it and whispered, "This is better than I thought it was going to be." I was pleased, because it was exactly as good as I thought it was going to be. Which is to say, not very. However, it was better than a lot of its peers.

The story isn't "Jack The Giant Slayer" but a Tolkien-ized "Jack and the Beanstalk", but I guess that's a less cool title. (The Boy would've been more interested if it had been based on "The Valiant Little Tailor" which is another Jack-based-giant-slaying story famous for "seven with one blow".)

Long ago, a magical beanstalk connected the human world with the cloud world where all the giants live. The giants came down and started wrecking up the place. The matter was resolved by crafting a crown out of giant-heart-metal (or whatever) which gives the wearer power over the giants, and also confiscating the magic beans.

Our story begins when an unscrupulous adviser (Stanley Tucci) to the king (Ian McShane) has exhumed these artifacts in a plot to use the giants to, you know, run stuff. He's also managed to get the king to promise his daughter Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) to him, so this a man with a lot of world-domination irons in the fire.

Meanwhile, our boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult, whom you may not recognize as the titular boy from About A Boy) has been instructed by his uncle (his parents are dead) to sell the family horse and cart, but en route, he encounters a monk who has managed to swipe the magic beans and is trying to get back to his monastery to hide them. Hence, Jack seems like less of an idiot, ending up with the beans as he does as a kind of collateral for the horse. (No one believes in giants or magic beans any more, of course.)

Well, you can see where this is going.

And it's a fairly standard grind. The princess is feisty. Jack wants to be Royal Guard to defend the princess, but he can't because you have to be of royal blood (huh?). Tucci is channeling Chris Guest's Six-Fingered Man. Ian McShane is just bein' Ian McShane. Come to think of it, if you were looking for a modern Princess Buttercup, Eleanor Tomlinson would do. (She has finer features than Robin Wright but there are similarities.)

The whole thing would've been better if they had gone more Valiant Tailor meets The Princess Bride come to think of it.

My friend and I were split on the CGI. He liked the giants, because he saw the dirt and coarseness, instead of (e.g.) a Toy Story kind of smoothness. I just saw that uncanny valley-esque plastic skin and  cartoonish exaggeration.

What we both agreed on was that it was relatively free of Jacksonian excesses and was much better for it. There are some improbable stunts involving a falling beanstalk, and a castle siege involving giants which didn't bear much thought, but by-and-large it avoids the ridiculous-stunt-removing-all-tension pitfall. (And the castle siege had some novel and cool elements to it.)

It's not just Jackson that's doing this, of course, but his amazing success is driving the style.

Meanwhile, it also lacks the "young girl is special and magical" crap they throw in to pander to the Twilight audiences. The Princess here is somewhat adventurous but not a swordmaster/lycanthrope/sorceress.

So it manages to avoid a lot of irritating tropes of the modern big budget fairy tale. It just doesn't rise much beyond that either. Ian McShane was actually sorta irritating. (Though there was a cute thing that he always wore armor and outfits that were outsized, to look bigger presumably.)

Best part of the movie is doubtless Ewan MacGregor as the captain of the Royal Guard. Although even that role is an awful cliché (recently twisted in Disney's Tangled so that it's the captain's horse), MacGregor plays it with tremendous charm and the story allows for him to be heroic. There's an element of The Valiant Tailor, in that Jack is pretty lucky, though he's also quite brave. MacGregor's character is more traditionally heroic, without any dumb competition with Jack.

I'd say this is one of those movies that doesn't knock your socks off while you're watching, but you do find things to admire about it upon reflection.

Oh, and I wasn't in town, so I paid regular prices for tickets, which with the 3D glasses worked out to $28 for two tickets. If that's what you people are paying, no wonder you don't go to the movies more.

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