Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) – Directed by Bryan Singer – Starring Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, and John Kassir.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is a perfectly pleasant, perfectly forgettable film that seems to be hurt rather than helped by its $200 million price tag.
It’s the kind of movie that screams Hollywood excess for the sake of excess, that casts Ian McShane and Stanley Tucci because they can and not because they’re the right performers for their roles. It’s the kind of movie that almost certainly could have been filmed for half the budget without losing much in the way of significance. It’s the kind of movie that satisfies like a Ford Focus for the production cost of a Bugatti Veyron.
That’s not to say the Ford Focus is a bad car because it’s a fantastic little car, but if you’re going to spend Veyron money, you should get Veyron performance, and JACK THE GIANT SLAYER isn’t a Veyron. Heck, it’s not even a Focus.
It’s a big wheel.
Or, at least, it ought to be.
I have little idea who JACK is intended to please given all the directions the film pulls us in. Given that it’s cast notable actors in supporting roles, you’d think that maybe this is a film looking for some wide appeal, giving parents a little reward for taking their kids to see the film because isn’t it hilarious to see Al Swearengen wearing the world’s ugliest Iron Man cosplay outfit. But JACK is a PG-13 film, which warns parents of little kids away from seeing the film. Is it the teenage audience the filmmakers are after? There’s a bit (just a bit) of nodding toward the YA films with the young leads and their romance plot, but Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) are much better actors than most of the unremarkably attractive leads in the YA films looking for a derivative piece of the Twilight and Hunger Games money.
When JACK is just a silly, fun story aimed at a younger audience is when the film is at its best. If the filmmakers had been content to make a big wheel for us, I’m sure they could have produced a fantastically enjoyable film at a greatly reduced production price, because there are parts of JACK that are enjoyable in the way a Saturday morning cartoon is enjoyable: fun, silly, and quickly told.
None of that requires a $200 million budget. And no, knowing the cost of the film doesn’t play a role in a film’s enjoyability, but I do think you can use that budget cost to try and figure out why a movie does or does not work. It would be silly not to take it into account. I’m not saying, “I don’t like JACK because it cost $200 million.” I am saying, “I thought this movie wasn’t very good and maybe that $200 million played a role in that.” Some films could use a bigger budget, but some movies really could use a smaller budget. Sometimes, filmmakers get so focused on what they want, they don’t give enough thought to what they need.
JACK gives us plenty of what the filmmakers want, but not half of it are things they actually need. You don’t need Ian McShane and Stanley Tucci and Ewan McGregor and Bill Nighy if you’re making a kids movie because kids don’t know who any of these people are. You don’t need an army of giants because a handful will give you everything a kid could want.
The film also suffers from a wonky visual style that comes across as far too clean, far too much the fairy tale that it also seems clear we’re not supposed to be getting; JACK purports to tell the “true” story that inspires the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tales, and if that’s the case, maybe the filmmakers would have been better putting more grit and less slick up on the screen.
I’m aware that all of this makes JACK sound like a horrible mess, and it’s not. Once the story gets going, it’s pretty enjoyable at times. But on the whole, it is a mess – a mess that could have been something really fun and light, but there’s too many competing impulses in the film. The material aimed at an older audience, and the material that revels in excess without any significant narrative benefit hurt the film. Those classic Saturday morning cartoons often had a completely static background, and the background was and is far less important than the foreground. I cared about Scooby Doo and Shaggy running down a hallway to get away from monsters – the fact that they ran past the same picture seventeen times neither ruined or improved my enjoyment of the cartoon.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER could use more Saturday morning cartoon. To be fair, it also could have gone in the other direction and been more like Game of Thrones or more like The Hunger Games, but as is, trying to be parts of a whole bunch of different things, JACK just feels like a Marketer’s Frankenstein and not like a fully realized vision of its own.