Jack the Giant Slayer reunites the formidable team of Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie (Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) for an entertaining spin on the Jack and the Beanstalk/Jack the Giant Killer fairy tales.
Set in the kingdom of Cloister, Nicholas Hoult (all grown up from About a Boy) is Jack, a brave if occasionally wrongheaded lad (with a fear of heights) who is entrusted by his uncle to sell his old horse for the sake of the family farm. No sooner does Jack get to town when he protects the honor of the rebellious Princess Isabelle (traveling incognito) and allows a fleeing monk to trade some magic beans (so he says) for the services of Jack’s horse. In short order, the villain of the piece Lord Roderick (played with hair and relish by Stanley Tucci) is in hot pursuit of the beans, Isabelle flees again, finds Jack and wouldn’t you know it, those wacky beans get wet and lead Isabelle high in the sky to a land of giants who can only be ruled by the one who wears the glitzy crown (it could be anyone…really).
Once the action reaches the land of the giants, the action builds nicely, aided by some excellent CGI (love those giants…there’s even one that resembles Jack Palance) and voicework (Bill Nighy is the lead giant), as well as some spirited-and recognizably human performers. Ewan McGregor is stalwart and droll as the king’s knight who joins Jack and Roderick (among some supporting actors who have death written on their foreheads) in their quest to rescue the princess and avoid being a happy meal for the giants. (I should let you know…especially if you’re bringing little kids….there is some not-so-fine dining done by giant gourmands). Eleanor Tomlinson is a feisty Isabelle-it’s too bad the script (by three writers, including McQuarrie) doesn’t allow her to be much more than a distressed damsel (the early sections lead you to think she’s capable of taking some initiative….more’s the pity) while Ian McShane provides a few layers as her authoritative, concerned father King Bramwell. As for Nicholas Hoult, he’s likable, callow, stammering …wait a minute—he’s just like a young Hugh Grant (the About a Boy experience must have rubbed off). In any case, you should know Jack is exciting, enjoyable, and doesn’t overstay its welcome–unless you count the coda.
You may not know Jack in his other incarnations …
Gene Kelly did a version of Jack and the Beanstalk (as Jack’s friend) for Hanna Barbera studios in the mid-1960s which combined live actors and animation, much as Kelly had done earlier with Anchors Aweigh and Invitation to the Dance. It’s sprightly and tuneful, with Kelly in top form throughout. It’s not on DVD yet, but it is available on VHS (remember that?) on Amazon.
Kerwin Matthews played Jack in Jack the Giant Killer. In this 1962 version, Jack encounters some giants, but even greater danger in the form of evil sorcerer Torin Thatcher. Judi Meredith is the attractive princess and there are exciting battles with two-headed giants and dragons. Worth catching on DVD.
Finally, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s Jack and the Beanstalk is a relatively minor entry in the comedy duo’s canon, but it still offers many pleasures. Lou is an incredibly gullible Jack while Bud is a conman and Buddy Baer is a decidedly ungentle giant. The musical (and comic) highlight has Costello singing “I Fear Nothing!” You won’t believe him for a second, but you’ll be amused.