Sunday, March 3, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
Dir. Bryan Singer

3 out of 5

Lightness has fallen out of vogue in the action-adventure genre.  More often than not, swashbuckling stories now come pre-packaged with complicated "mythologies," endless MacGuffins, or computer-generated visual clutter.  While Jack the Giant Slayer - Bryan Singer's first directorial effort since 2008's Valkyrie - contains its fair share of the latter, its no-nonsense backstory is immediately refreshing.  Long ago, vicious giants left their home above the clouds and invaded the human realm, utilizing a massive beanstalk as their conduit between the two worlds.  A warrior king helped slay one of these giants, then melted its heart into a magical crown blessed by his holy men.  Forced to obey whoever wore the crown, the giants were banished from the world below and the kingdom was saved.

This is the legend that enthralls Jack's two protagonists - the meek farm boy Jack (Warm Bodies' Nicholas Hoult) and restless teenage princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) - whose shared obsession with genocidal monsters kick-starts an old-fashioned adventure built on cinematic archetypes that have been around since Errol Flynn was swinging from castle staircases.  Isabelle is betrothed to the villainous Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci) who, unbeknownst to his king (Ian McShane), has located the magic beans and crown of legend.  He plans to recruit an unstoppable army of giants, but hits a snag when Jack acquires the beans and accidentally launches Isabelle to the land above the clouds.  The king demands that Jack accompany his elite guards, led by the dashing Elmont (Ewan McGregor), on a mission to retrieve his daughter.

At this point the spectacle begins to overwhelm the story.  Fortunately, Tucci and McGregor (who has some experience in green-screen acting) are up to the challenge, chewing on the nonexistent scenery like it was a month-old steak.  Both actors seem to enjoy their respective roles - especially Tucci, who plays a vintage boo-hiss villain with a murderous flair.  Hoult and Tomlinson, however, just try to do the best they can with their two-dimensional stock characters.  Despite some nifty cross-cutting that tries to establish a promising chemistry between Jack and Isabelle, their interactions borrow directly from the damsel-in-distress playbook.

Considering the film's long gestation period (D.J. Caruso was slated to direct a more "adult-oriented" version before being replaced by Singer) and its astronomical effects budget, it's impressive to watch Singer successfully maintain Jack's airy tone alongside its pervasive (though sanitized) violence.  While a few parts feel like an amalgamation of ideas, there are still plenty of moments where everything comes together in a perfect balance of family-oriented humor and thrills, such as a sequence where Jack rescues Isabelle and Elmont from being roasted by a gangly giant chef.  Close watchers will be able to spot where Singer was forced to pick his battles: some of the CGI backgrounds are absolutely hideous on the big screen, though even jaded audiences will admit that the climactic siege battle is pretty astounding.  But Jack is not just a typical effects-driven wannabe blockbuster.  It's a modest yet effective return to a type of entertainment that appeals to parents who grew up with moderately dark fantasy epics like Willow (there's even a Warwick Davis cameo), jazzed up with the next generation of visual effects to spark the adventurous imaginations of their children.

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