By Carl Kozlowski
Even as 2012 proved a watershed year in movie quality, with six $100-million-grossing blockbusters competing for the honor of Best Picture, it also appeared to hit a new low in terms of creativity. Both Snow White and the Huntsman and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which was released last month after being booted out of the fall 2012 release schedule, seemed as though they were going to offer warmed-over cinematic takes on their respective Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
But just as the new Snow White surprised critics and fans alike by being good enough to earn $150 million at box offices in the US, and two Oscar nominations for costume design and visual effects, Jack the Giant Slayer also stands to draw attention on its own terms.
A lavish new 3D take on Jack and the Beanstalk, the film sets up its world with readings of the classic fairy tale in its opening moments between young Jack and his poor father.
The story focuses on the fact that evil giants once terrorized humans until God provided a giant beanstalk upon which the giants were chased up to a permanent purgatory-style realm between Heaven and Earth. The beanstalk had been cut down by the humans, trapping the bitter giants high above the planet for what seemed like an eternity.
The hitch, however, is that several magical beans survived all the battles — beans that could grow another beanstalk and ease the return of the giants to their evil ways on Earth if they were watered or fell into the wrong hands. When clumsy Jack loses a couple of beans, the giants seize their chance to return to Earth and have their revenge.
The story sounds simple, and, indeed, it sets up quickly before moving at a blistering pace thanks to writers Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney, who use what appears to be an obvious ending as a jump-off point for a string of second-half twists.
As Jack, Nicholas Hoult scores his second solid leading role in a month, following his excellent off-beat turn as a zombie whose heart suddenly starts beating when he finds himself attracted to a normal woman in Warm Bodies. While that film scored a lot of its points with dark, dry humor, here he is a more straightforward hero, even as he’s caught up in even more extremely fantastical events. The skills Hoult has displayed in those two roles, combined with his role as Hank McCoy, aka Beast, in the X Men: First Class series, bodes well for a long career.
The rest of the cast provides stylishly fun backup, with Eleanor Tomlinson’s Isabelle being a stirring princess who is well worth Jack’s risking of his life. Ewan McGregor adds plenty of fast-paced fun as well as Elmont, the king’s top fighter, who winds up being surpassed by Jack in the rousing finale.
Jack marks director Bryan Singer’s return to the undeniable popcorn fun of his X-Men films, following the relative duds of the overly serious Superman Returns and Valkyrie. Whether showing human-giant battles on the human turf of Earth or in the sky-borne world of the giants, he shows a flair for nonstop yet endlessly inventive action sequences that fully merit the use of 3D in an era where that gimmick often feels played out.