The huge success of Alice in Wonderland has seen film studios take a stranglehold on classic tales and amass them into big-budgeted productions; Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel and now Jack and the Beanstalk, transformed into Jack the Giant Slayer. Success has been hit-and-miss for these, with Jack spectacularly falling into the miss part. Don’t let its failure put you off though; it’s an enchanting treat that’s a guaranteed hit with children.
For those unfamiliar with the original tale, it’s about an underprivileged young man who climbs up a beanstalk, sprouted by magic beans, that leads to another land where a giant lives, from whom he steals a bag of gold coins, a golden egg and a harp. Of course a lot of liberties have been taken for this re-imagining, multiplying the giant to hundreds, creating numerous sub-characters and incorporating a mandatory princess as bait for their coming together.
Nicholas Hoult plays Jack, showing the boy has grown into a capable leading man after putting in his second shift as one this year after Warm Bodies, and Eleanor Tomlinson (co-incidentally from Alice in Wonderland) portrays Princess Isabelle. Ewen McGregor forms the triptych of blue-eyed central characters as Elmont, leader of the King’s elite guards. The story is set in the kingdom of Cloister, opening with Jack’s father and Isabelle’s mother narrating to them as children the legend of King Erik repelling the giants upwards where they are kept under control by a magical crown and beans buried within his tomb (conveyed in decidedly-dodgy CGI mode).
Ten years later and farm boy Jack is ordered by his uncle to sell a horse, but is forcibly given said beans by a monk for it instead. He was protecting them from the King’s treacherous advisor mad on power, Roderick (Stanley Tucci), who also happens to have the once-thought mythical crown, and just needs the beans to get to the giants.
Of course, whilst in the possession of Jack, one bean gets wet, producing a huge beanstalk and sending his house skywards – with Princess Isabelle inside. She was there because her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), is forcing her to marry Roderick. So after running away, she stumbles across Jack’s place when looking for shelter. What follows is her rescue, the giants coming down to earth, and finally an epic clash between them and the people of Cloister, Middle Earth-style.
The unique story is adapted into a familiar Hollywood fare, but once the first half of the film is out of the way and we enter into the giant’s territory above, the action doesn’t let up. It compensates for the expected cheesy dialogue and the disappointing 3D that adds nothing to the visual experience, like so many before it. But minimal long-winded speeches and a simple narrative ensure that the story flows without being bogged-down in a stream of English accents.
Basically, what you see is what you get – there’s no pretentiousness (Snow White and the Huntsman), and no confusion as to who this will appeal to (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters). This is kids’ stuff, pure and simple.
Characterized by performances such as Stanley Tucci hamming it up as the pantomime villain, it is, however, Fallon, the two-headed leader of the giants, who gets everyone’s attention. Voiced by Bill Nighy, he could be Davy Jones straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean amalgamated with Gollum from Lord of the Rings. It results in a grim yet comical and strangely non-frightening appearance – a picture-perfect monster for children to dislike without giving them nightmares, even when he is chomping down on numerous humans (no blood showing of course).
There are some unexpectedly inventive sequences too; McGregor as a pig in a blanket is a delightful feast for the imagination, and Fallon hurtling towards earth at break-neck speed in a Hulk-like manner is enthralling. Throw in a nice little twist to present day London, and you have the spot on film for half-term.
However, it’s probably best for adults to go in with low expectations because there are some awful puns (“spill the beans”, “barking up the wrong beanstalk”), an overload of special effects and the most generic of plot points. If they can be overlooked, there’s fantastical adventure for all to be had that’s slick and well-fashioned (and we’re not just talking about McGregor’s hair). Singer may have ended Hollywood’s fairy-tale fad, but with rousing set-pieces and non-nonsense heroes and villains, Jack the Giant Slayer is a fun few hours for all the family.
X-men connection – Bryan Singer directed the original X-Men and X2, and Nicholas Hoult starred as Beast in X-Men: First Class. They will both come together again for X-Men: Days of Future Past.