Its difficult to say why this film didn’t work. It could have been too many cooks in the kitchen. The release date was pushed by nearly a year for re-shoots, and re-doing visual effects – much to the chagrin of all the hundreds of artists working at predominantly Digital Domain and MPC who were on 15-hr days, 7 days a week trying to make the FIRST deadline, only to have the studio say, “Oh, sorry, you know that finish line? We’ve moved it… BUT KEEP RUNNING!” So, I can only guess that the studio didn’t like the first cut, or it tested poorly, so they asked for changes. This process, when done improperly and haphazardly, causes the majority of watered down movies that are so worried about catering to the largest demographic that they end up being neither terribly good nor terribly bad — just a waste of time.
In this retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk (duh), we are hurtled into the story with Jack as a little boy being read a fairy tale (animated by Prologue Films) about how the giants came down from the sky and took treasures and ate people, but, due to a magical crown, the King was able to banish the giants back to their land. I’m a little foggy on the details. I was already kind bored because the rules and events were so complex and convoluted that it just became a mess. To compound the confusion, we cut back and forth between Jack and Princess Isabelle who are being read the same story. So, who is our hero? Should it be called Isabelle The Giant Slayer? Or Jack and Izzy Together Again? I’m guessing its to instill that the two of them have the same hankering for adventure (Izzy hints to her mom that she has found the tomb of the Fairy Tale king in the catacombs).
Anyway, Jack’s mom has died somehow, but it never seems to really define who he is. Later on (arbitrarily 10 years later), he never says “Gee, I miss Mom” In fact, in those 10 years, he lost his dad too to some plague. He now lives with his Uncle who seems to be way too old and is not too happy to be taking care of flaky Jack. Again, there doesn’t seem to be too much mourning for Jack’s dead father either. Isabelle has also lost her mom, but not too troubled by it. I don’t recall any “Oh, your Mom died, too? Same here!! Let’s do things together!” I’m not saying there wasn’t. I could have just been entranced by my keys for a minute.
Sticking with the original tale, Jack goes to market to sell a cart of stuff because they are poor. But, the original cow is switched for a horse (so Jack can ride later). No biggy. Jack goes into a carnival-like show where Warwick Davis hosts a retelling of the giants tale with grown people flinging around midgets (or “little people” for the more sensitive types) Regardless, they are being tossed — which totally wouldn’t be appropriate in this day and age. Jack looks over and sees Princess Jasmine, I mean Isabelle, incognito so that she can escape the confines of the horrible life of a Princess and be privy to the to classy entertainment of dwarf tossing. But, she is harassed by drunk ruffians who want her shiny bracelet. However, unlike Jasmine, who can take care of herself, Isabelle is pushed around, and Jack steps in with his high cheekbones to stop this nonsense. It would have been nice to plant the seed of his chivalry sooner — like when his dad was teaching him about giants and stuff. But, for the sake of argument, our almost feminine Jack is chivalrous. He is about to take these guys on when the cavalry shows up to rescue the Princess led by Elmont (of all names), played by Ewan McGregor’s haircut in shining armor. They take the Princess away, and Jack finds that his cart has been stolen…but the horse left behind(?)
In the meantime, we find Stanley Tucci with bad dentures playing Roderick (who is the “name” guy on this show? Maybe he likes Life of Brian) with comedy sidekick, Wicke (McGregor’s Trainspotting co-star Ewen Bremner). Roderick needed a long,thin, curly mustache that he could twist, because the first words out of his mouth might as well have been, “I’m the bad guy planning to marry the Princess and take over the Kingdom” They are going to some room in the castle, when a Monk comes stumbling out of said room all nervous and panicked. Our baddies think nothing of maybe stopping him, but instead look puzzled and race up the stairs to some cluttery room. There are desks, and drawings, and books, and plants. I thought this might have been the place that monks do things like copy Bibles or something else that would have justified a monk being in there. But there is no explanation. Instead Roderick finds that something has been removed from a hidee-hole inside a book. Gasp! But! Whew! A crown is still there, hidden inside the dirt of a potted plant. Quick!! Now that we didn’t grab that guy when we had the chance, alert the guards to stop any monks!! Wicke does so with evil sidekick giddiness. You see — the structural problem with this is that it takes away any possibility of a reveal. WHAT!? That guy was bad all along?!? We could have been strung along for a good while. I mean…we already HAVE bad guys. The Giants! They are in the title! Why do we need ANOTHER bad guy?
The monk sees that there is no escape. But he sees Jack moping by with his horse. The monk offers to buy the horse. I haven’t quite caught on to why he feels that a horse will aid in his escape of a locked down castle. But whatever. He tells Jack that he will gladly pay him Tuesday for a hamburger today (in essence), but until then, please take these beans. No fool, Jack tells him, “No way! These are just beans.” “NO!”, the monk refutes, “These are the most important things EVER. I don’t know you, but you look like a good kid. I’m going to trust the potential end of the world in your hands so that I can obtain this ineffective method of escape that is your horse. And BTW!!! DON’T GET THEM WET!!!!”… in a moment of the most subtle foreshadowing since Gremlins. Jack is dubious, but then there is a distraction in the courtyard, Jack turns, and the monk basically steals his horse, and is quickly captured.
Back at home Jack’s Uncle scolds Jack for taking beans from a monk, and saying that he will never see the promised money because monks don’t HAVE money. He makes a good point. Never once in Jack’s argument was “The frickin’ monk STOLE the horse” ever brought up. In the meantime, we once again cut back and forth between Jack’s argument with his Uncle and Isabelle’s argument with her kingly father, King Brahmwell (Deadwood’s Ian McShane who unfortunately never once calls anyone a ‘cocksucker’ in the entire movie). The discussion cuts in mid-sentences so one character finishes the others’ lines like some kind of improv exercise. It was as if some studio exec saw Pixar do it with Brave, and then said “Hold production!!! We’ve GOTTA do THIS! If its good enough for Pixar, its good enough for us. Hold it. Hold IT! What if we have TWO heroes, and they are having the same problems??!” Unfortunately for them, Pixar generally knows what they’re doing. And, in fact, these two people are NOT the same, and they DON’T have the same problems. Jack is being scolded because of his mistake, he and his uncle will starve. Isabelle is being scolded because she has to marry someone she doesn’t want to and she doesn’t get out enough. So, in Jack’s argument he spills his beans, and one escapes down a knothole. And Isabelle, sneaks out into the rainy night. (Uh-oh…wet)
So, in the storm, Isabelle seeks comfort in a small cottage…Jack’s cottage. They pretend like they don’t know that they’ve just met each other earlier that day for some reason. The bean underneath the floorboards gets wet and then in an impressive visual effects sequence, takes the cabin and Isabella high into the sky, with Jack trying to save her, but ultimately failing, falling back to Earth and passing out. He wakes to King Brahmwell and lots of royal constituents including Elmont and Roderick. No one seems the least bit alarmed that an enormous beanstalk has grown into the sky — given that the last time it happened, giants came down and decimated the lands and ate people. Instead, there is lots of unnecessary chitchat to get to the point: Princess Isabelle is now at the top of the beanstalk and needs rescuing. The King barely bats an eye when his only daughter is in dire danger. It doesn’t even matter if giants exist or not, HIS DAUGHTER IS MILES HIGH ON A BEANSTALK!! You think that he might give a shit.
Of course, Elmont volunteers to save her with the rest of his trained “Guardian” team. Roderick volunteers as well, twisting his mustache with evil intent. And Jack volunteers because he knows something or other about whats going on because he was the last to see her. Yeah — I thought it was flimsy too. So, they start climbing. Prefaced with a close-up of Roderick’s saddlebag to make sure we know he has the crown. After the last debacle of almost losing it from its genius hiding place in a flower pot, I suppose its best to keep it with him at all times.
So they climb. And they climb. And they climb some more. Edmont’s right-hand man Crawe (?), gives Jack some advice on how to get over his fear of heights (another thing that could have been planted before the whole beanstalk thing). And then they climb more. And its dark, and they are still climbing. And then one trained Guardian guy falls, pulling down numerous others guys because they are tied together. No one taught them that there are real methods to climbing and belaying to prevent such things. But alas, they are stopped by Wicke, who gleefully cuts the rope and lets them fall — because he and Roderick are evil.
They FINALLY get to the top. Jack, Edmont, Crawe, Roderick, Wicke, and some random guy who happened to survive. As the Guardians go on to assess what happened to Isabelle, Roderick lets the evil cat out of the bag to Jack that he is evil and wants the beans. Jack hands them over without much protest (but saves one for himself and puts it in a handy locket that I don’t recall being established). Roderick continually warns Jack of dire consequences if Jack decides to let the others in on the “Roderick is evil” secret.
Edmont hands out some bread to the traveler’s. Roderick asks “We didn’t bring food?” (in a nutshell). Edmont informs him that all the food and supplies were lost when the other men fell. Maybe this makes Roderick think about his evil ways, but in a better screenplay, this would be foreshadowing to some point in the film where they need food. But no. That doesn’t happen.
In the meantime, the townspeople have setup a carnival around the beanstalk. Why? Maybe its a commentary on people attempting to bank on things that are new and shiny, despite the inherent danger in doing so. (psst…giants). But, that may be giving too much credit to the film. With all these tents and jugglers and so forth around, the King and his men find Edmont’s soldiers who had fallen from the beanstalk the night before. There is some sort of discussion regarding cutting down the beanstalk, and a dubious remark that accidents happen, all while looking at the end of the cut rope. Its intriguing that there is an allusion to foul play being afoot — but nothing is really made into an actionable item — like, send somebody up to help since the team has now lost half of their manpower. It’s more like the consensus was to sit and wait to see what happens.
One of the Guardians notes that Isabelle has been marking trees with carvings so she can find her way back if she got lost in this strange world. But, then they notice that one isn’t finished — she was stopped. Jack sees a lot of trees and branches broken and deduces that she has been abducted “by something very big”. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but these people have grown up with the fairy tales of giants and beanstalks and magic and stuff. So, when a giant beanstalk appears going up to the sky, why are people climbing it and then being all elusive about the idea that their might be giants lurking about? Even a bit later on when they run across a trap and some sheep (or maybe it was goats….anyway…farm animals, and while I’m at it, what was the trap set for? Sheep?) Jack, Edmont, and the rest act confused when they hear big, stompy footsteps in the woods. What could that possibly be? Giants perhaps? Jack makes an odd decision to hide underwater, rather than say, behind a tree. He took way too much time wondering what all the stomping was about, and didn’t have time for an alternative. So — hide underwater. No downside in that. Only death by drowning.
Enter giant (we find out later that he is named Fee — get it?). He smells something new (the blood of an Englishman presumably), but it isn’t until Crawe makes a run for it that the men are found out. Both Crawe and Edmont are caught by the giant. Jack eludes detection with his admirable ability to hold his breath for a long time.
Cut to Roderick and Wicke. They are accompanied by one of Edmont’s expendables. Roderick plays a clever ruse that he sees Princess Isabelle across a vast crevasse, luring the trained soldier to the edge and blithely pushes him off. So much for the King’s best warriors — bested by a sniveling Lord with bad teeth — and by bad, I mean evil. Wicke cackles because that’s what he does. But have no fear, redemption comes in the form of a couple others giants who have silently crept up. They are Fye and Fo. One eats Wicke offscreen.
Now lets pause a moment while we investigate the eating of people and the ratings board. I assume that all eating of humans takes place off screen (or at least out of focus) for ratings purposes. This is definitely aimed at a younger audience (both physically and mentally), so I can understand trying to keep it out of the “R” But if that’s the case, why not push it down further beyond PG-13 and into PG. I can’t think of anything that would have kept it in that PG-13 range — Giant Violence, maybe? A quick check on parentpreviews.com reveals the answer: “A golden statue with a bare bust is seen in the treasure room.” But other than morally questionable works of art, its pretty mild. In fact, there is so much talk of grinding bones to make one’s bread, that the fact that we don’t actually see giants taking a bite outta someone detracts from the threat of giants. But maybe that’s just me.
Anyway — back to the story. Or whatever the filmmakers’ call this thing.
Oh right. Giants eat Wicke. They are about to eat Roderick and his teeth, but the devious Lord pulls out the mythical, magical crown which somehow allows him to control the giants. I was never quite clear on the reason why giants cower to this thing. But how else was Roderick supposed to control the giants to take over the kingdom below? I suppose the plan of marrying the Princess and inheriting the Kingdom wasn’t grand enough for his Machiavellian ways. We have to get giants involved. Maybe it was so he could conquer the OTHER Kingdoms after he became King. So really this was an allegory pointing to the false alliance between Hitler and Stalin…meh, probably not.
Back to the castle. Jack has trailed Fee to the Giant’s fortress in the sky. He gets into the castle and sees a treasure chamber full of gold, including a golden harp (probably the aforementioned one with bare bust). But nothing much comes from this. It’s a setup with no payoff. Could have just cut it and saved some visual effects artists from a bit of weekend work.
Inside, Edmont and Crawe have been put in front of the giant leader, General Fallon and his physically stunted second head. That’s right. A second head. Physically stunted. And inarticulate, to boot. It just grunts and sneers and looks wide-eyed and agape. It’s really just Salacious Crumb without the talented puppeter underneath the floor to make him at least memorable on top of annoying. This head, is such a mis-step in design and conception that once you see it, the performance of master actor and mocap go-to guy Bill Nighy is completely lost in the distraction. It contributes nothing and takes away everything. Fallon doesn’t come across as threatening, as an adequate warrior or giant, and the head isn’t funny at all. This is assuming that its supposed to be comic relief given that the mocap and voice for Fallon’s other head is John Kassir – a comedian, but also voice of the Crypt Keeper from HBO’s Tales From The Crypt. This may have worked better if Kassir actually had lines to speak. If this giant community were Spartans, Fallon would have been thrown off the cliff at birth.
Ridiculous. And if the film wasn’t off the rails yet…this was the point where it jumped the track for me.
OK — so, we find out that Isabelle is the giant’s prisoner. Nothing shocking there. But then Roderick shows up with his crown and steps on kneeling giants and orders that Edmont and Isabelle shall be prepared for dinner to celebrate his new position as ruler of Giantious, or whatever its called. Crawe isn’t for dinner because Fallon has already eaten him (off camera). One of the other giants (cleverly named Fumm), who looks like he might be Samoan, or maybe Maori, some kind of South Polynesian giant, sneers at Fallon’s behavior despite the power of the crown. These guys had already been arguing early, so there is obviously some leadership issues. But I’m on Fumm’s side — who the Hell elected the guy with the retarded second head?
Another thing to point out at this time. Isabelle has now been demoted to “Damsel in Distress” She has done nothing heroic since she rode off into the dark and stormy night from her father’s castle and ended up riding a beanstalk up into the clouds. And she will not contribute to anything heroic. She will not stand up to anyone. She won’t fight giants. She won’t kick Roderick in the gonads. Nothing. From here on out, all she is is a tag-along for Jack, and the object of unrequitted love for Edmont. Basically — she’s in the way. Why is this important? We had 20 minutes of exposition that confusingly tries to make a parallel between Jack and her. That they are both the heroic type, looking for adventure. Well, guess what Isabelle? You suck at heroic. And that’s unfortunate. Both for you and for us in the audience.
Jack sneaks into the kitchen where a giant is preparing Isabelle and Edmont for dinner. The giant farts, picks his nose, wipes it on his arm — all the tried and true comedy bits that make the 2nd graders laugh — and no one else. Jack takes out the giant by dropping down on his neck with a knife. All the while, Edmont is being rolled into a pie crust and floured saying over and over that “He’s got this” — again to uproarious laughter. They run off to try and escape down the beanstalk. Giants and Roderick hot on their tail. But, uh-oh, there is a giant that’s been placed on guard duty where the beanstalk is. Probably the smartest decision I’ve seen in the film. But, alas, this giant is lazy and sleeping on the job, snoring loudly, as giants are wont to do in pedantic retellings of fairy tales. Jack has an idea though. There is a bee’s nest nearby, and they sneak up on the giant — open the faceplate of his armored helmet — drop the bee’s nest into the helmet — sneak away — and hide behind a rock to await the tom-foolery. All without waking it! These guys are good!!. We get to see the antics as the giant is stung by hundreds of bees and can’t figure out to get his helmet off. Then he DOES, and much to the delight of the audience, this giant has a ‘fro that would make Kid jealous. He stumbles over to the edge, and with a take reminiscent of the T-Rex in Caveman…he falls.
Jack and Isabelle plan to head down the beanstalk. But Edmont stays behind, being the good knight that he is. I honestly can’t remember the details behind his chivalry. Find out Roderick’s more than obvious plan? Try and stop the giants single-handedly? I don’t know. Either way, he’s staying behind. Jack and Isabelle begin their descent.
Below, Kid Giant has landed in a big, hot, giant mess. So, there is no doubt in the King’s mind. They’ve gotta chop this cocksucker down. And to make sure there is no question, he takes his sword and starts hacking at the beanstalk. This is a bit humorous (probably the only thing) because of his ineffectiveness against this plant that would dwarf a Redwood. Everyone joins in.
Edmont faces off with Roderick and his giants. Somehow Edmont gets Roderick in a cave where the giants can’t reach depsite Roderick’s woeful cries for help. The currently impotent (metaphorically) Fallon tells the other giants to hold back — and lets Roderick fight his own battle. Edmont defeats Roderick… kind of. There is a lot of talk and cutting to Jack and Isabelle climbing down and shots of beanstalk chopping to amp up the pace a bit. It might have even worked if I cared at all.
Somehow the people down below manage to cut through this thing and it begins to fall. A five mile high structure is quickly becoming a five-mile long structure. And impressively so. Really. This scene, from a visual effects standpoint, is damn fun (done by MPC, BTW, who managed all the beanstalky shots). Its fun. People are running around. Things are getting smashed. Tons of dirt and debris hurled through the air. Its a good ride — until we are meant to believe that Jack and Isabelle could swing off of the falling beanstalk and land safely into a haystack. And that Edmont could, at the very last minute, leap off the beanstalk and safely land in the castle moat. There are a lot of action sequences in the history of film that border on plausibility. Indiana Jones riding an inflatable raft to safety after jumping out of a crashing plane in the Himalayas. Probably not possible — but fun. Indiana Jones saving himself from a nuclear explosion by hiding in a refrigerator. Neither possible, nor fun. Just dumb. I feel that when designing action, there is a line that is crossed when you do things that people know would not work. Not in a million lifetimes. And with digital effects creating a “we can do anything” mentality, filmmakers are frequently crossing that line. (See upcoming review of Fast and Furious 6). The survival of our heroes depends on the audience buying the idea that if an elevator cable snaps, and you go hurling down the shaft at 32 feet per second squared, that if you are able to jump at the very last moment — you will be safe. Most rational people know that this is not the case. You don’t even need to know about physics and other smart stuff to know this is not true. Furthermore, most of us know from experience that jumping into water from not even great heights has some physical repercussions on impact. This is without riding an object the size and mass of a skyscraper while wearing medieval armor. Edmont would be a pool of goo, and Jack and Isabelle would be, at best, in body casts — if they had those back then. I guess the barber would simply cover them in leeches and hope for the best.
I know I’m nit-picky about this stuff, but even as a visual effects guy, it bothers the shit out of me when things aren’t at least grounded in some kind of reality. From a storytelling standpoint, I feel it pulls the audience out of the story. From a filmmaking standpoint, it makes our job harder. We have to work harder to convince you, the audience, that something is believable. Its the crux of the argument between practical and digital effects — and why these two disciplines have to work together.
OK — no more pontification.
Everyone is happy. The princess is back! The King is jolly. Jack is given gold as a reward but is sad, because he wants Isabelle – but he is just a lowly peasant. Even after all the heroism, he hasn’t finished his arc. And Isabelle doesn’t say anything because she’s lame.
Up above, Fallon kills Roderick (or maybe Edmont did — who cares?) Fallon takes the crown and uses it as a ring. He is now in charge for reals — as opposed to before when Fumm was butt hurt for some reason. AND Fallon, finds those little beans that Roderick took from Jack (except for one! REMEMBER!!??). Fallon does a lame call to arms speech that rivals Kristen Stewart’s whimpery foray into heroism as Snow White. But Fallon’s speech starts out with Fee, Fye, Fo, Fumm, and now there are giants to answer!!! Thank GOD the Fee, Fye, Fo, Fumm etymological mystery has been solved. All the other giants are revved up. I don’t think anyone else has names. The probably ran out of F names, and no only feels threatened by Fred The Giant.
With the lame phrase “Bring On The Thunder”, Fallon throws the beans into the river and Beanstalks burst from the ground, but the instead of growing UP, the giants leap on them, and pull them DOWN. OK… not what plants do, really. Maybe magic beanstalks. But whatever. The giants ride the beanstalks DOWN into Act III.
I roll my eyes at “Bring On The Thunder”, just like when anyone in films says “Make It Rain” or similar phrases. You know why? Because the only people that use those kind of phrases outside of movies…are douchebags. And you know who you are.
The gleeful King and his entourage ride back toward the castle, while Jack notices that giants are falling from the sky. He LEAPS onto his horse (the broken down one stolen by the monk earlier in the film), and rides like a bat out of Hell to catch the King, Isabelle, and the others to warn them of giants. The giants burst from the forest and chase down the group. Hitting horses with big hammers. Grabbing guys and biting off their heads (hidden by motion blur and shaky camera work). Edmont has recovered from his fall at the castle and is leading men to start pouring oil in the moat and lighting it on fire. All the expendable knights die in the chase, but fortunately the King, Isabelle….and JACK make it into the castle. WHEW! Fallon is in hot pursuit with his troop of giants and simply CANNOT wait and make a plan to storm the now fortified castle. He LEAPS at the door but doesn’t make it. He falls into the burning oil. He reaches for help from Fumm, who sneers even more. Curse you, FUMM!!! And Fallon and his gimpy head sink into the burning water. But not to be shown up by Jack’s record for holding one’s breath underwater, Fallon notices a tunnel into the moat from inside the castle, and decides that is the best attack and swims for it.
Up above, Fumm, now in charge, leads a huge game of tug-o-war between the giants and the humans. They do things like lob burning trees and such. But nothing terribly significant happens. They just keep pulling back and forth for the next ten or so minutes.
Jack and Isabelle run off at the behest of the King. I think its to protect the Princess. I hope so. The “Every Man For Himself” hero doesn’t really work very often. They are headed off at the pass by Fallon and his little head. They manage to elude him and hide under a tablecloth or something, but the whole blood-of-an-Englishman scent gives them away. More running around, and Jack manages to drop his bean into Fallon’s mouth, causing another beanstalk to erupt from his body (another point of concern from parentpreviews.com). The beanstalk blasts through all the walls and towers at mammoth proportions yet unseen until now. The Tug-o-War continues, and the giants break in, but Jack walks out at the last moment with the crown on his head, so the giants bow. The humans have, once again, conquered the giants with an incredibly yawn-inducing climax.
Epilogue: Jack and Isabelle are grown up and run the Kingdom. They have kids who want to hear the stories of giants, with all sorts of questions like “Where did the crown go?” Well, we see it being melted down and reformed and we leap forward hundreds of years, and in the perfectly awful setup for a sequel that will hopefully never be made, the magic anti-giant gold has been embedded into the Crown Jewels, securely kept on display in the Tower of London. A homely looking child stares at the Crown with evil intentions glinting in his eyes. He looks at the camera and smiles a toothy grin with awful teeth. With this awful dentistry, I will assume this is the great-great-great-grandchild of Roderick, rather than a near racist attempt to show that we are in England. I wouldn’t expect that from Bryan Singer. Michael Bay? Absolutely. I would also expect “Bring On The Thunder” not only to be used in a Michael Bay movie, but also by Bay himself.
Like many visual effects driven films today, filmmakers are substituting storytelling with technology. While technology and what we can do with it in film is all cool, we are losing sight of what stories are, and what they mean to culture and society. Yes, they are entertainment, but without a core message to them and a fundamental story, the rest mean nothing. Jack The Giant Slayer is one of many, many films that are guilty of this. The studios say they spent $200M. Knowing that the visual effects were nearly done almost a year before the release and that major changes were decided on, continuing post production for months and month, I suspect that that number is far greater. And for what?
Something went awry. Something at the inception of the project…and then again when early audiences gave feedback. Perhaps the original concept was cool and unique, but somehow in the process, things were watered down, setups were planted but in editorial the payoffs were missed. I don’t know. It was a flashy film with very little substance.
BTW, this doesn’t detract from the technical artistry of the film (well, except for maybe Fallon’s design). All of the visuals were top notch, and there are a ton of artists whose blood, sweat and tears are all over that screen. And definite kudos to them for the accomplishment.
I just wish Studios would give the artists work that means more.