Review: Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, This ‘Giant Slayer’ is not much fun

I try not to pay too much attention to the reactions of others before I write a review, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid.  I saw Devin Faraci refer to the film as “an atrocity” on Twitter, and I saw Harry Knowles argue that Devin’s the wrong audience and that it’s a kid’s film so Devin’s reaction isn’t fair.  I’ve seen more reactions as negative as Devin’s, and something I read actually compared the film to “The Princess Bride,” which strikes me as something akin to blasphemy.  

I was surprised by the vehemence of Devin’s reaction, but equally disappointed that Harry seems to dismiss some very real issues with the film by simply excusing it as a kid’s film.  I think the frustrations I have stem from seeing things in the movie that suggest they could have pulled this one off.  I think they got more right than wrong, but it’s unable to come together as a cohesive experience, and I’d love to know how the choices were made that ultimately make it feel like it missed the target.

Nicholas Hoult, seen earlier this year in “Warm Bodies,” is given the title role here as Jack, a young man raised in a long-ago land where stories are told to children about a war against giants who lived in a kingdom in the sky.  He grows up believing in the stories, and when he’s a young man, he finds himself swept up in a series of events that toss him into a shared adventure with a princess named Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a knight named Elmont (Ewan McGregor), and a slimy Stanley Tucci character played, coincidentally enough, by Stanley Tucci.  Plus giants.  There are definitely giants.  And the way those giants are imagined is perhaps my biggest (no pun intended) problem with the film, but we’ll get there.

The hardest part of making a movie like this is deciding what the reality of the film is going to be.  Are you tweaking the very idea of fairy tales by giving your characters a sort of self-aware attitude?  Are you playing it very straight and sincere?  Are you showing us the dark and horrifying version of the safe children’s version we all know?  Are you doing it for kids?  For adults?  For fans of broad comedy or bone-rattling action?  I’m not sure there was ever a moment on “Jack The Giant Slayer” where everyone involved with it agreed on the version of the film being made, and as a result, it feels like it shifts gears almost constantly.

Hoult plays Jack as a fairly straightforward hero, and while he may have a few stumbles and stammers along the way, he seems to be the one person who can handle himself no matter what the film throws at him.  He earns the film’s title with a single-handed score of something like three or four giants, and in each case, I there’s some real imagination shown in how the giants are battled.  Hoult looks young enough to still be able to play this particular riff on the hero’s journey, but he’s old enough to be a credible action lead, and he is spirited, fully invested here.  It’s interesting how much Hugh Grant there is in the Hoult’s performance, and I wonder how much of it was just him soaking up the way Grant does things and how much is conscious.  You look at the beginning of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and it’s uncanny how well River Phoenix echoes every little nuance of what made audiences fall in love with Harrison Ford’s work as Indy.  It does’t surprise me, though, because Phoenix worked with Ford on “The Mosquito Coast,” and Phoenix was one of those guys who was a sponge, soaking up things from pretty much everyone he met.  Hoult, like Phoenix, has grown up on film sets, and I would imagine “About A Boy” was a huge moment for him, and formative in ways he may not even realize.

Jack ends up in possession of some magic beans after a fairly quick opening that shows the way the real history of the war with the giants has been distorted by time and the way distant past eventually becomes shrouded in myth, and pretty quickly, he ends up losing one of the beans.  It gets wet in the space underneath his house, and as he’s standing there in his living room talking to Princess Isabelle on a particularly nasty night (basically, she’s Princess Jasmine from “Aladdin”), a beanstalk erupts from the ground.  That’s the only way to describe it.  It just keeps pushing its way out until Jack, who has a fear of heights, goes tumbling off. Isabelle, on the other hand, gets trapped and rides the beanstalk all the way up.  When her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), learns of her fate, he quickly orders his most trusted advisor Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the Knight Elmont, Roderick’s loathsome assistant Wickle (Ewen Bremner), and Elmont’s partner-in-arms Crawe (Eddie Marsan) to climb the beanstalk, find his daughter, rescue his daughter and make sure no giants are able to follow them down the beanstalk once the job is done.

Oh, and they’ve got to let Jack, a nobody who may have actually inadvertently caused all of this, join them on the adventure.

I kept waiting for the moment where Isabelle proves herself to be much more than just a princess, but the movie doesn’t seem to have any agenda with her other than “look pretty and get rescued”.  Eleanor Tomlinson, who plays Isabelle, is physically just right for the part, and she’s good opposite Nicholas Hoult as Jack.  What she doesn’t manage to do is overcome the script.  And honestly, up till the morning after that beanstalk grows, I thought it was uneven but generally enjoyable.  But then the giants arrive.  And, oh, boy… those giants.

I have no doubt that the exaggerated and cartoonish nature of the giants was intentional.  I have no doubt that they were designed that way in part because they didn’t want to scare children too badly.  But they don’t fit into the reality the film establishes.  It’s like they had three or four different units running at once, all shooting different stuff, and they left it to the editor to figure out how it all pulls together.  In this case, I’d argue that it’s a trick question, since it never all pulls together, and that’s a shame.  “Jack The Giant Killer” might be best for very young kids, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what the studio wants to hear.

“Jack The Giant Slayer” opens in theaters today.