NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
The trend for redoing fairy tales as big contemporary fantasies continues with Bryan Singer’s conflation of two giant-associated Jacks, the … and the Beanstalk fellow and the Giant Killer, in a surprisingly old-fashioned picture. It opens with farmer’s child Jack and young princess Isabelle both being told the story of how long-dead King Erik freed the kingdom of Albion of giants and banished them thanks to a magic crown, but when they grow up – played by Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson – they’ve lost their narrative equality. Jack has class to overcome, since he’s initially too low-born to compete with royal bodyguard Elmont (Ewen McGregor) in the hero stakes, let alone have romantic hopes about the girl, whose father (Ian McShane) has betrothed her to obvious villain Roderick (Stanley Tucci). Here, he’s not an idiot and those magic beans are shoved into his hand by a monk who needs to buy his horse to attempt an escape from Roderick. Isabelle shows contemporary feistiness by dressing as a lad to watch dwarves in theatre and escape her engagement, but as soon as the stalk sprouts and she’s whisked up to Gargantua, she becomes a plot token whose job is to be abducted and rescued and get into trouble again so a whole bunch of men – extending to two-headed giant Fallon (voiced by Bill Nighy and John Kassir) and his entire race – compete to marry, own, exploit or eat her.
Given that recent takes on Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel have transmogrified fairy tale weeds into Buffy-type ass-kickers in tight trews (a principal boy tradition), it’s almost perverse to revert to the tiresome old mode which gives girls no identification figures (other women are almost completely absent from the film – there are no female giants, for instance). McGregor, with a ridiculous brush do and what looks like CGI skintone, has to play stooge – the fake hero shown up by a real one – and Tucci soon loses his command of giants to get squashed so Fallon can lead the charge against the kingdom. The action, when it comes, isn’t bad (Singer does great fantasy battles), though the film can’t quite bolt the conventions of follk tales/panto onto the structure of a physically-demanding action film. It tries to make beanstalk-climbing a rigorous, dangerous endeavour but keeps tripping over the sort of logic which would be okay in a fable but sits ill with an attempt to work out the physics and botany of beanstalk-reached Gargantua, a forest established as above the clouds where it still rains from somewhere. Similarly, the goonish, BFG snot humour and grand guignol stuff about pastry-wrapping McGregor into a sausage roll feels out of place in a film awash with PG-level bitten-off-heads and gargantuan genocide. A good cast of supporting players – including Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner and Ralph Brown –mostly get squashed, and fantasy mascot Warwick Davis appears.
Setting the film in the mythical Kingdom of Cloister in ‘Albion’ divorces the film from even legendary history and means rewriting the most famous couplet in the script so that ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ is followed by ‘ask not where the thunder comes’ because there aren’t any
Englishmen to have their blood smelled – though this is taken back by a bizarre coda that shows the magic crown being incorporated into successive ornaments until the present day when it’s in the Tower of London and we can assume that the giant-busting powers it endows can now be employed by the Queen if the need arises. Written by Christopher McQuarrie (Singer’s Usual Suspects mate – there’s a funny use of the line-up logo with giant silhouetets) and Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After) and Dan Studney (Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical), from a story by Lemke and producer David Dobkin. Not a remake of the 1962 Jack the Giant Killer, which used the Arthurian/Cornish version of the character rather than the beanstalk story, it does share a captured princess and a two-headed big bad with that well-liked, if ramshackle fantasy.