Bryan Singer gets a lot of grief for Superman Returns, but he set himself an arguably impossible task, trying to create a story that would bridge the gap between the Richard Donner movies (ignoring the two nobody will admit to liking, of course) and something resembling comics continuity – taking wiseass, wig-wearing, real-estate guy Luthor and turning him into bald-and-proud millionaire Luthor, for example. What this means for his upcoming attempt to selectively bridge cinematic X-Men realities is anybody’s guess (mine is it’ll do well and fanboys will gradually turn on it by year’s end). But it, along with such films as Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects, demonstrates that Singer likes to rise to the challenge of adapting multifaceted characters. Which could be why he feels so adrift in Jack the Giant Slayer – there’s only so much complexity you can wring from the tale of Jack and the fucking beanstalk. And by “so much” I mean “none.”
The generous soul and the fanboy in me wants to think that Singer took this on as a practice run for dealing with multiple giant threats like the Sentinels in the next X-sequel. Frankly, I can’t imagine another reason that makes sense beyond the almighty paycheck, and there are easier ways for a big-name director to earn that.
So what can one say about this? Jack (Nicholas Hoult, of Warm Bodies and X-Men: First Class) is a boy-band version of a medieval peasant, left with his uncle after his father has died of the plague. I’ll give Warner Bros. credit – for once, they cast an actor (Christopher Fairbank as said uncle) who doesn’t have unfeasibly perfect dentistry for the Middle Ages. He may be the only one, however.
Anyway, Jack goes to town and ends up trading his horse for some magic beans, which are relics of a bygone war with giants that everybody tells everyone else the story of, constantly – it’s not just their only bedtime story, but is performed publicly as a play by Warwick Davis as well, yet they all somehow doubt its veracity. The beans are dangerous, and you’d think it’d be pretty easy to destroy beans if they were really that much of a hassle, but no – instead Jack accidentally lets one get wet, and it grows into a massive beanstalk that leads to the land of giants in the clouds, what with Jack’s house conveniently and coincidentally being located at just the right place to climb onto the edge of that land, which is called “Gantua.” (Gargantua would be just too obvious.)
For reasons unimportant, the princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is in Jack’s house when the beanstalk grows around it, but Jack falls off, that he may reconvene with some of the king’s men as part of a rescue party later on. Also in this group are heroic knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and king-to-be Roderick (Stanley Tucci) whose role is akin to that of Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride, and who has a kind of Pinky and the Brain rapport with sidekick Wicke (Ewen Bremner) – one of them’s a genius, the other is insane, and the smart one wants to try to take over the world. It’s not so hard when there exists a magical crown that forces all giants to do your bidding, despite their usual inclination to eat humans.
So how are the giants? They’re about what you probably feared. Scenes in which we anticipate them are fun, and Singer goes to town with a few underwater POV shots that are impressive (he’s also fond of rain, just because rain looks good if you film it in 3D. Seriously, everything they do in this movie fades from day, to dark and rainy, to night, just because hey, 3D rain!). But then you actually see the giants, and they have major “uncanny valley” issues with dead eyes – that their leader has a second head resembling Gollum only calls attention to the issue, because performance-capture wise, it is so, so not Gollum. It doesn’t help that they aren’t written very well; we saw character posters for Fee, Fye, Foe, Fumm and Fallon, but I still have no idea what distinguishes them as characters besides Fallon being the leader and one of the other four wanting to be. (I don’t remember which one, and it doesn’t matter.) It’s funny that they all have Northern Irish accents, and I mean strong ‘uns – Liam Neeson sounds like Alec Guinness by comparison. If the UK had our level of talk radio insanity, somebody would be up in arms about it being an IRA metaphor or something. But really, this movie does not merit that level of scrutiny, despite its gob-smackingly stupid final moments that suggest a really bizarre potential sequel may have been hoped for.
And it’s frustrating, because even when Singer is bad, he has enough good small moments that you know he could do better. A scene between McGregor and Tucci in which they argue over who the hero of the story is (both think it’s them, and neither is right) hits the right tone, and Jack’s first giant slaying in an oversized medieval kitchen is genuinely exciting and fun. But the whole thing reeks of obligation, and it’s no fun at all to say that this is easily Singer’s worst film.
What does that mean for X-Men? Hard to say. It’s difficult to imagine any director turning Jack into a fantastic film. But it definitely has me hesitant for his next.