There’s so much that’s so wrong with Jack the Giant Slayer that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Once upon a time, Bryan Singer actually made a pair of good movies in the 90s before churning out mediocre superhero movies and historical thrillers in the aughts. Somewhere in that timeline he also fell in with Peter Jackson, but you don’t need to pay attention to history to figure that one out; you just need to watch Jack the Giant Slayer, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Maybe the worst crime here, or at least the hardest to fathom, is that somebody in a boardroom actually thought that the concept of a fantasy reinterpretation of a simple English folktale had even the remotest merit.
Unsurprisingly there’s little to be gained by attempting to figure out how films like this get green-lit, and the presence of mystery doesn’t do anything to improve its quality. If you’ve ever been read a bedtime story, you probably know the basic set-up, which Singer leaves intact: a poor farm boy, the titular Jack (Nicholas Hoult), heads off to the market intent on selling his horse, and he winds up with a fistful of magic beans. (Though he doesn’t know that they’re magical, just that they’re special. They could be psychotropic drugs for all he cares.) By happenstance, the beans end up getting wet, sprouting a colossal beanstalk that climbs into the heavens and bridges together the human world and the world of giants, who have dwelt in a land above the clouds for centuries.
Singer expands on all of that with backstory; before our story takes place, there was a war between savage invading giants and men, who repelled them with magical MacGuffins and have safeguarded said artifacts ever since. He also tosses in a free-spirited princess, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who takes after Pixar’s Merida, refusing to live the sheltered life her father the king (Ian McShane) has planned for her. And a diabolical, plotting, traitorous lord (Stanley Tucci) who happens to be Isabelle’s betrothed. And and and. Singer tosses so many different onions into the soup that one gets the sense he’s not shooting for streamlining or even for tonal consistency; Jack the Giant Slayer becomes such a gallimaufry of random elements in just the first thirty minutes alone that it doesn’t feel like he had a specific audience in mind while filming it.
Does the movie appeal to the kiddie set and their parents? Does it appeal to teens? Details catering to both demographics crop up throughout Jack the Giant Slayer‘s running time, but for every overblown fleck of grit there’s a fart joke, and for every epic overture there’s an embarrassing anachronism or eye-rolling pun delivered as flatly as possible. It’s the epitome of a mixed bag, or it would be if any of its numerous facets worked on their own; as it stands the whole bushel is so rotten that the incongruities barely matter. This is what a movie looks like when nobody involved gives a damn.
Correction: one person does appear to care, and that’s Ewan McGregor, here playing the archetypal heroic knight with relish. He’s such a blast to watch that I almost want him to have his own spin-off, but the energy McGregor brings to his performance underscores just how disengaged his fellow cast members are. One can scarcely blame them; they’re slumming it with some truly wretched material, but McGregor’s working off of the same script as Hoult, McShane, and Tucci, so maybe that’s not much of an excuse. If everyone had been operating on the same level as McGregor, Jack the Giant Slayer could at least have slid by on the strength of engaging acting, but they do nothing more than show up. Like the film itself, their efforts don’t possess an ounce of heart.
Troubling as it is to see gifted performers flounder, it’s even more of a concern to see a movie this soulless. That’s quite possibly Singer’s calling card; even his best films are just exercises in competent craftsmanship, well-considered casting choice, and impressive attention to detail. So one could argue that Jack the Giant Slayer offers exactly what we’ve come to expect from Singer films, though that doesn’t necessarily make it right, or honest for that matter. Even Valkyrie doesn’t pretend to offer anything more than one hundred and twenty minutes of empty entertainment; Jack the Giant Slayer, on the other hand, wants to trick audiences into forking over their money on opening weekend without giving them anything worth the price of admission (or the loss of two hours) in exchange.
Perhaps the problem is that Singer’s just nicking from bigger, better films, aiming for the Lord of the Rings crowd by cribbing directly from Return of the King. He might well be actively trying to pull in a core audience of Jackson fanatics– the scenes that take place in the land of the giants feel very much like a riff on Jackson’s King Kong– though there’s a pretty strong hint of Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy 2 at play, as well. Maybe that doesn’t matter; it’s unlikely the kids in the audience would catch the Del Toro nods or possibly even the Rings references. (Note: don’t bring the kids. Jack the Giant Slayer isn’t graphic, but even an outline of a giant biting a person in half could be upsetting to little audience members.)
But Singer doesn’t realize that this sort of “homage” accomplishes nothing without a basic understanding of what makes those moments work in their respective films, other than to remind us that we could be watching better movies instead. Jack the Giant Slayer doesn’t have a reason to exist; it’s cheap, ugly spectacle for cheap, ugly spectacle’s sake, and a massive waste of its considerable talent pool. 2012 showed off just how good a genuine blockbuster can be, and Singer’s efforts don’t come within a hair’s breadth of any of them. Fee, fi, fo, forget about it.