I’m trying a new review format today, with subtitles! (Even though I’ve now kind of undermined it by publishing my review of AK first…)
Jack is a poor, good-hearted farmboy who lives with his uncle. Isabel is the princess betrothed by her father to marry a man twice her age, who yearns for love and adventure. Both grew up loving the tale of how King Erik the Great defeated the giants that once plagued the land—a tale that no one believes to be true. But one day, through a chance meeting, a stolen cart, and Jack’s less-than-successful attempts to sell the horse that his uncle entrusted to him, he ends up with nothing but a handful of beans that a monk assured him would bring him the money for the horse if he will only deliver them to the abbot without getting them wet. Jack’s uncle, of course, thinks that he’s been conned and in the fit that follows, one bean ends up unbeknownst to them underneath the house. All proceeds as usual until that night, when it begins to rain, and Isabel, who has run away from the palace, seeks refuge in Jack’s house. The bean, however, bursts into a beanstalk the moment the rain reaches it through the floorboards, taking the house and Isabel with it. Thus Jack must join the royal guard and Isabel’s fiance Roderick up the stalk to save her…but some members of the party have hidden agendas.
I honestly wasn’t sure what to think when I randomly picked this movie to watch as part of my post-Star Trek movie watching frenzy. For about five years now Hollywood has had this growing trend of retelling fairy tales with really cool CGI effects thing going on, and not always for the better. One of the reasons I never went to see this in the theater is because I can get quite worked up about fairy tales, and on occasion, a story that pretends to “retell” a story and then doesn’t at all—or almost does but with bizarre changes that don’t make sense—I get distracted and cease to be able to pay attention.
So maybe it was just because my expectations were astoundingly low, but this movie was a very pleasant surprise. It sought to do something that I love fairy tale retellings to do: to retell a fairy tale in a form that makes it a story that could have happened that way, turning into the stories that we’re familiar with over time. Personally, I don’t mind whether it tries to do that with or without magic. This story fell exactly into the version of this ideal where people recite a legend as myth, learn it to be true, and after generations the story fades into myth again.
But it wasn’t perfect, of course.
The (Human) Characters
Jack is, of course, the everyman; the “insert-yourself-here” bubble that allows the viewer to truly experience the story as if it were their own. It’s in keeping with the fairy tale, where Jack is just a foolish, naive country boy who believed in magic beans.
What I did not like was that the writers demonstrate his good heart by having him stand up for Isabel when she is being harassed (all the while not knowing that she’s the princess). It’s a nice thing to do, sure, but it also sets the stage for Isabel as perpetual damsel in distress, to be rescued by Jack. She actually manages to go the entire film without ever once filling a role other than love interest and damsel in distress. And tour guide, just once, although she then rapidly becomes damsel in distress again.
In Isabel’s defense, she’s no Buttercup, just standing by and watching while her love interest is torn to shred—or, alternatively, “helping” ineffectively with a stick. Isabel always has a very good reason for not being helpful: like being trapped by a growing beanstalk, or in a giant’s hand, or in a cage. Her only character trait was a desire for adventure. But, well, at least she had a character trait that wasn’t being in distress and falling in love.
Sir Elmont, the captain of the guard, was the most sympathetic of the characters. He’s the cautious knight who believes in justice, is deeply honorable, and cares deeply for his men. He is quick to give Jack respect where it is earned, and is not seen to look down on his lowborn status at all (though neither is anyone—more on that later).
Roderick is where things start getting iffy. There is a point at which he produces a certain object of great power. But some things are never addressed: where did he get it? How did he get it? How did he know what it did? How was he so convinced that it would work? Why did no one else know of its existence, or alternatively realize that Roderick had it or that it was missing? Why are these questions never addressed?
Apart from that giant vacuum, Roderick was merely a flat character designed to serve his purpose for the plot and then leave.
The King was…interesting. By which I don’t mean that he was a dynamic, exciting character. I mean that when we first meet him, he is Isabel’s father dictating her way of life, and onwards after Jack and the knights climb the beanstalk, he continues to be this strict, hard-hearted person. Then Isabel comes back, and suddenly he’s a big softie. I can’t quite figure out whether I want to interpret it as bad writing, or that he experienced a sudden change of heart upon recovering his daughter and later his kingdom. . In the end, he just sort of accepts Jack. Changes the laws for him and everything. No conflict whatsoever. You can kind of read into the subtext, though, and figure that there is a tiny little internal sort of conflict that gets resolved before it ever becomes overt.
Jack’s uncle, however, is a plot device only present in the scene where he berates Jack for giving away the horse and cart for a handful of beans. We see him again, briefly, as Jack is explaining to the King what happened to Isabel (and his uncle’s hut) but then he vanishes, never to be seen or discussed in the story again.
Giants and Beanstalks
So, obviously the CGI of our day isn’t quite as realistic as it will no doubt be one day. The growing beanstalks were fascinating to watch, but the giants’ movements were…a bit odd. Especially when they run. They look seconds away from just falling over.
But more interesting is their motivation. The giants are desperate to go to the human world and eat humans. But why? Are we supposed to be their favorite food? Am I supposed to take their obsession with us is equivalent to our obsessions with our favorite foods? Like…chasing cows. Or bulls. (I shy away from the idea of them chasing chocolate cake with legs, not because of the disturbing imagery but because they’re shown attempting to cook humans, suggesting that they view humans the way we’d view any source of meat.) And I can’t imagine a bunch of humans starting a huge war with civilized, sentient cows just because they were desperate for beef. They survived for hundreds of years without eating humans; clearly they don’t need us to survive. Or maybe they only need to eat once every hundreds of years? But then again, they eat pigs, too. And sheep. And anything, really. They even make bread! So are we just a delicacy that they needed desperately to chase?
And the crown. If it fits on a human head, why does it have to be worn on 2 giant fingers? Why can’t it be worn on 1, especially if it adjusts in size? Also, why can’t they just wear it as a crown?
Then there’s the beanstalks. It makes sense from our land: they grow upwards, to the giants’ land. But we learn that when planted on the giants’ land, the beanstalks grow up, over the edge, and down to the land below. Are these sentient beanstalks, designed to connect human land and giant land? Why do they do this? Is there something in the soil that regulates their growth pattern?
I mentioned that I love that this film tries to make itself a part of real, actual history that then happened to fade into legend. That’s a great idea! Except I have no idea when or even where this was. Originally, Jack’s story took place in King Arthur’s time, but, well…no need to mention that this isn’t the case in this film. Even assuming that the legendary King Erik was Erik the Great, I still can find no context in which any Isabel or Isabelle would have ruled England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland at any likely era, suggesting that this either took place somewhere else, or just wasn’t taken as an important detail. But the story we have today with the “Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman” would suggest that it had to take place in England, which simply doesn’t add up to any concrete point in history that I can place. But I’m not a historian, especially not of British monarchs.
So, not a perfect movie. But it was entertaining, and frankly the first interpretation of Jack the Giant Killer or Jack and the Beanstalk that I’ve liked to any degree. Not that this is a story that I run around hunting for interpretations of, but for what it’s worth, I found it worth watching. Jack is innovative and clever, and even though some of the settings may make you roll your eyes, and there are definitely a lot of unanswered questions. There aren’t any great lessons or symbolic points as I saw it, but then again I also didn’t really care, because it doesn’t try to be deep. It’s a fun little film, and if you’re as into fairy tales as I, then worth seeing once.