March has arrived, and that means it’s time for the first round of big budget popcorn movies to begin making their way into theaters. Jack The Giant Slayer, the first one to rear its enormous head, probably won’t end up towering above the rest (all groan-inducing puns intended) when all is said and done, but it’s still a pleasant enough diversion for an evening out, delivering likable characters (Ewan McGregor as the heroic guardsman who, much to his own amusement, keeps getting one-upped by Jack is a standout), some pretty good CGI work (the giants do appear cartoonish, but since it’s made clear they aren’t human, there’s no reason they necessarily have to look like one), and a simple story that stays faithful to the spirit of its fairy tale roots.
Like any fable worth its salt, Jack The Giant Slayer begins with a “Once upon a time,” this time provided by two parents whom we see reading the same bedtime fairy tale to their respective children. The tale explains how in times long past there were giants in the sky who came down to earth by descending enormous magic beanstalks so that they might feast on human flesh. Fortunately, a mighty king arose who possessed a magic crown that allowed whomever wore it to control the giants. The king used the crown to command the giants to return to the sky and then had the all the beanstalks cut down. But although the world was made safe, the giants are still up there, just waiting for the opportunity to descend again and satisfy their awful hunger.
The children listening to this supposed fairy tale – the farm boy Jack and the princess Isabelle – are the protagonists of the story, and it’s a nice way to introduce them. Years before they ever meet, the two share a loving and respectful disposition, have an interest in the same subject matter, and they both desire adventure, all of which makes things much more believable when circumstances bring them together as teenagers and they find themselves immediately attracted to one another despite their obvious class differences. And this is one of the things Jack The Giant Slayer does really well: combining its exposition with its action so that the story never bogs down for too long.
From the opening frames, the movie wastes little time on anything extraneous, going so far as to not even have any opening credits except for the title (a growing trend I fully support). So forget any time-killing search for the ancient crown and magic beans – the bad guy already has them when the movie begins. And don’t worry that precious minutes will be used up by the king trying to decide if the lowly Jack is to be trusted or not; His Majesty sees there’s a beanstalk over there, so just get the boy to climb it and save the princess, already! There is no padding, no unnecessary sidetracks in Jack The Giant Slayer. You came to see battles between humans and giants, and by gosh, that’s just what you’re going to get. (Almost.)
If there’s one thing to nitpick with Jack The Giant Slayer, it would have to be the final battle scene. After some nifty adventures up the beanstalk and an exciting chase back to the walls of the human kingdom, the giants prepare to lay siege to the city. And it looks like it’s going to be a great set piece: the giants are armed with boulders and flaming trees while the humans have set the moat ablaze and lined the walls with Roman style, rapid fire ballistae (not historically accurate for the setting, but then, neither are giants), and everything is in place for some good old rough and tumble, Battle of Minas Tirith style action. But then, the audience is instead treated to a fifteen minute long tug of war at the castle gate, while Jack and Isabelle play hide and seek with a two-headed giant inside the castle. Not every fantasy movie needs a big battle at the end, of course, but if you’re going to spend $195 million dollars creating an army of armored giants, it seems like you might actually want to have them – oh, I don’t know – get into a fight with somebody or something. The final standoff is just a bit anti-climatic and could result in some people leaving the theater feeling a little cheated by an otherwise enjoyable film.
Thematically, though, the resolution the movie provides still works given the fairy tale setting. G. K. Chesterton observed the following of this literary genre:
“If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other – the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve… A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth. This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore – the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative.”
The choices set before the characters in Jack The Giant Slayer aren’t quite as clearly defined as that of Adam and Eve (the Bible had a better author, after all), but the peace and happiness of the kingdom rest on their answers anyway. At various points throughout the film, the two leads are confronted with the choice to either accept the limitations of their respective social classes and lapse into inaction, or to follow their consciences and let their strong moral character transform the roles they’ve been assigned. So in the end, it’s fitting that instead of the mighty warriors in the courtyard, it’s the strong and clever people Jack and Isabelle have become who are responsible for how the situation is to be resolved. And just how does it all turn out? Well, it’s a fairy tale, so let’s just say that there’s definitely the possibility that everyone will live happily ever after.