A few months ago my wife and I went to see Jack the Giant Slayer in theaters but tickets were sold out that night so we ended up doing something else. Tonight we finally made up for that missed opportunity by renting it at home.
It seems like every time a big expensive action/sci-fi/fantasy/comic book movie comes out I am excited to see it. I don’t care if it’s a big silly spectacle, usually I can find a way to enjoy it.
Often times I find myself reading scathing reviews after the movie (to be explained soon in a blog post) wondering how the reviewer can see so differently than I do.
Well now I know what it’s like to be on the other side.
I loathed the movie. Despite very much liking the actors Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, and Nicholas Hoult, the movie managed to swallow them up in unconvincing CGI, lackluster dialogue, and sorry under-characterization.
I actually went in with high hopes believing that despite it’s status as a box office flop (think the shiny but little seen goodness of Pacific Rim… ok maybe not quite that good) that it was somehow still a decent movie. I was wrong.
Now usually I don’t like to be negative about movies. In an upcoming blog post I will talk about how much I dislike negative reviews and see them contributing little to the overall enjoyment of films and very much find them annoying. So instead I’m going to try something a little different.
See, I actually wanted Jack the Giant Slayer to be a good movie. Not a perfect movie, not a masterpiece, not an Oscar contender. Just a fun silly adventure that pulls out a few story punches along the way.
So what did Jack and his beany friends do wrong?
How did this film that cost tens and tens of millions of dollars to produce and market end up such a disappointment?
Although it’s hovering a little above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, the top reviews from my Google search seem to focus adamantly on the film’s better parts, admitting its flaws yet downplaying them at the same time.
How is this so? What am I missing?
How can they ravage a film like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey which clearly has heart, pathos, and a wild sense of adventure and then innocently gloss over the glaring weakness of Jack’s Boring Climb to Floating Giant World? (Ah sorry, I said I would try to be nice. I’m failing.)
It is weird. It is weird to care so much and it is weird to spend so many words trying to articulate my feelings but I promised that I would get around to make some positive and constructive comments, so here goes.
Here is how Jack the Giant Slayer could have been a better movie:
1) Tell me, who exactly is this titular Jack?
Really, I didn’t see what made Jack any different than say the hero/protagonist of Eragon or some other bland fantasy movie. I know that this Jack grew up listening to stories about giants. I know that Jack now lives with his uncle or something. I know that Jack lives in a pretty humble house and that he is brave and gets into fights during puppet time.
But what I don’t about Jack is why I should care about him. He is pretty generic. He could be anybody.
When Nicholas Hoult played Beast in X-Men First Class, there was an instant connection created between the audience and his character. He was super smart, he had cool classes, he was geeky, and he had secret mutated feet that he hid from the covert government branch where he worked. He had great chemistry with Raven/Mystique and yet couldn’t quite find it in himself to pursue her. He was a small character but definitely a character.
What really needed to happen with Jack is something that could set him apart from the generic fantasy humble farmboy stereotype. As far as I can tell, he is a simple do-gooder with a mediocre personality. I’m not even certain he was the main character of the film, despite the title.
Here’s how Jack should have been. Jack should have an opinion on the monarchy/crown apart from mere deference to “your highness.” How does Jack feel about the king and his kingdom? Does he think him a good ruler? Does he feel pained that he and his uncle live in relative squalor while the royal family feasts in their palace? Or perhaps does he aspire to serve the king one day, to be in the royal guard or an advisor or be the king’s court storyteller?
What does Jack want besides to rescue the princess and not lose his uncle’s horse? He certainly does not wish the destruction of Cloister, but then again nobody really does except the Giants and Super Evil Lord Roderick.
But what does this movie’s Jack want? The princess, sorta. But only if she makes the first move because Jack is a little shy.
But you know what, I forgot. Jack likes books. So there you go, he is a character after all.
I MIGHT be concerned about Jack’s relationship with Princess Isabelle except I know even less about her than I do about Jack.
Which brings us naturally to the second question.
2) Why do we care about the relationship with between Jack and the Princess?
All we know about the princess is that the director likes to crosscut scenes of Jack and scenes of Isabelle so as to confuse us or perhaps symbolize how they are both the same person because they were read the same bedtime story and both have grumpy father/uncle figures in their life. I don’t know really know.
The princess, like Jack, could be anybody. I didn’t even remember what her name was. I had to look it up.
The one thing I do know about the princess is that she does not want to marry the evil psychopath/narcissist/world conqueror. Again, as with Jack, that is not really notable characterization in that NOBODY wants to marry evil short serial killers.
A little notable is that she is defiant of her stubborn and unsympathetic father. The king wants his daughter to stay in the palace all day and marry Lord Psycho. Instead of creating a tender and enlightening relationship marked with two district approaches, instead we just get a straight dysfunctional one. The king lost his queen, so now he just decides to be a jerk. Instead of exploring this backstory and what it means to the King or the Princess we just skip ahead. The King doesn’t care about his daughter. He will happy even start chopping down an impossibly thick giant vine all by himself and sacrifice his daughter, because GOSH HE DOESN’T CARE.
At least Lord Roderick has the goal of taking over the world. At the least the Giants are under mind control half the time to excuse their goal-less behavior.
Why can’t we see the King care about his daughter for once? Maybe it happened somewhere and I just missed it, but moving on.
Perhaps because the movie was so dimly lit but also because the script intentionally decided to hide her appearance for the beginning of the movie, I really had no idea what Isabelle even looked like. She was wearing a hood. She was wearing a princess outfit. She was wearing a cloak and hat and hiding her face from Jack. She was in a cage in dimly lit room full of giants.
Who is this character? I can’t even see her face! By refusing to let us see her face, her eyes, the portal into an actor’s soul, the movie intentionally turns Princess Isabelle into a mystery for most of the movie. And unfortunately, a mystery cannot simultaneously be a character.
Yes, I know Isabelle likes to disobey her oh-so-stern father and conveniently run away to the main character’s house, but by the time the action gets started she is swept away.
Sure, Jack likes her because he’s evidently never seen a girl before but why should we care?
Princess Leia is an awesome character because she is dedicated to freedom fighting, skilled at diplomacy, sarcastic and outspoken. Princess Merida is an incredible archer, defiant of her parents yet also loving toward them, responsible over her brothers, and adventurously brave to boot. But Princess whatshername? Not so much.
3) Why is Lord Roderick so evil?
As little as I know about Jake and Isabelle, I know even littler about the movie’s primary antagonist. The giants are stupid and don’t really have a plan. But Lord Roderick is a master manipulator, schemer, and backstabber.
Unfortunately, he is not a character either. He is evil because he just is so evil. There’s no real reason that I remember given for his nefarious deeds and his unquenchable drive to conqueror the whole world with an army of giants.
Did the King slight him somehow? Did the princess spurn his love for so long as to leave him with a hole instead of a heart, a hole that can only be filled with power and control so as to never be hurt again?
Nope, Roderick is evil for no reason whatsoever.
4) What is going on with Elmont?
There is strangely self-aware moment of the film where Roderick is fighting hand-to-hand with Elmont. Clearly Ewan McGregor’s Elmont was supposed to be an awesome butt-kicking sidekick/companion to Jack. During the cave fight scene, where Roderick clearly has the upper hand, Roderick shouts to Elmont that Elmont is not the hero of this story and Elmont replies that he knows he is not the hero so it doesn’t really hurt his feelings or anything.
But wait? If Elmont is not the hero, then why die the movie try so hard to make him look cool and stuff? He doesn’t really make much of an impact on any of the other characters and his role in advancing the plot could have really been done by anyone. But no, Elmont gets the awesome task of staying behind to kill evil Lord Psycho and get back the glowing crown that gives you mind control over lazy CGI giants.
IF Elmont is not the hero, then why he is 200 times cooler than Jack?
IF Elmont is not the hero, why is he doing the hero’s job?????
IF Elmont is not supposed to be the dang hero, then why do I so badly wish that they had cast Ewan McGregor as Jack instead?
Elmont is basically just another version of the generic fantasy hero. He is pure, he is loyal, he is selfless, he is good at being brave and fighting stuff. And he does it all better than Jack does. Oops.
For Elmont to exist, he needs to have some kind of influence on Jack. He should be the one to encourage him to go after the Princess, or to convince Jack to stand up and fight the giants, or to shed his uncle’s provincial mentality and come serve in the capital. But no, Elmont is a glorified sidekick.
It would even have been better if they changed Elmont to the main character who is viewing Jack’s situation and progress from the outside, ala Shawshank Redemption. Make Elmont the main character, who just happens to be witnessing Jack’s story and helping him become his own hero.
Alas, we don’t really even get to see how the story ends for Elmont. One second he leading armies in battle and then he is offscreen forever.
5) What do the Giants represent?
Evidently nothing, but let’s pretend for a second they did.
If I learned there were freaking Giants that could bite off my head in 2 seconds, that would shake my reality for a second. In the movie, not so much. People are not really afraid of the Giants as much as they are uncannily prepared to kill them with fire moats and javelin-machine guns.
Giants should be this awe-inspiring chaotic force that makes kings tremble and cause the strength of warriors fade. This is what Lord of the Rings gets so so right during its battle scenes. The orcs are unrelenting, uncaring, unfeeling. They strike fear into the heart of man. A giant does not need to be like an orc, but it should do something besides mobilize an instant and 100% effective response, no?
I thought the troll scene in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey captured the big humanoid creature thing pretty well. Although heavy on the snot jokes, the trolls were grotesque and unexpectedly dangerous caricatures. These giants, however were a faceless army. The only one of importance or with any distinct personality was the general, Fallon the two-headed giant.
A great tragedy, Fallon has two heads but one is a slobbering doofus. How great would it have been to have a giant with two heads and two distinct personalities that worked together using their separate approaches to solving problems? Imagine instead of having Fallon killed by dropping a magic bean in his mouth if Jack “slayed” Fallon by finally getting the two heads to argue with one another, critically distracting them in order to plant the seed in them?
But no instead we get one head that does everything and another that blindly tags along.
Why? Because giants are stoopid.
I never for one single second in the entire 2 hours was afraid that any of the good characters in this movie would get hurt by a giant. The giants live in the coolest place in the world, a floating island in the clouds, and when they go after a single unprepared human city are defeated in 20 minutes.
5) Was that really the ending?
As far as I’m concerned, all the heroes did was manage to annoy the giants and remind them to come back down sometime and eat all the humans.
Really the ending was terrible. What could have been an awesome story punch (see: name of the blog) was instead a mind-bending gimmick.
After accepting the premise that this is a fantasy world for the entirety of the movie (a premise that allows us to accept facts like magic beanstalks, forgettable CGI giants, and characters made of out of cardboard), the movie lets us know that this Jack’s tale is actually the secret history of St. Edward’s Crown found in the Tower of London.
Do we get to see Jack reconciled with his uncle, whose horse, house, and livelihood he destroyed?
Do we see Princess Isabelle make amends with her emotionally vacant father?
Do we see how battling giants and staying true to his kingdom changes Elmont?
Nope, we get a stupid crown.