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This film has so many things going for it and is smart in so many ways that it’s hard to figure out where it goes so wrong – or more accurately, how it just doesn’t really get to any place very special.
In the ancient past (prior to the start of the film), the giants who dwelled in the sky battled with humans who lived on the Earth. Eventually, a strong and noble king defeated the giants, and for a long time peace reigned. Hidden away on Earth, however, are beans that can grow enormous vines into the sky and reconnect the two worlds, as well as a specially tempered crown that controls the giants and led to their defeat. Skillfully detailing a wide variety of characters, Jack offers a multilayered narrative that often progresses via a carefully synchronized, almost choral-like arrangement. In so many ways, this admirable effort – which is well-acted, carefully scripted, and sports strong special effects – is not just a narrative, but an examination of stories and storytelling.
The beans, of course, are taken from their hiding place and end up in the hands of a farm boy named Jack (Hoult), who trades a horse for them. His angry uncle, upset over the ridiculous exchange, tosses them to the ground. Even though Jack has been warned against getting them wet, one rolls under the house’s floorboards, and enormous beanstalks spring up into the sky after it rains that night. The stalks also boost the farmhouse up to the skies and take with them the princess (Tomlinson), who is fleeing her father, the king (McShane), in order to experience freedom and adventure. Jack, the princess’ smarmy husband-to-be (Tucci) and his henchman, and a number of knights (including Bremmer, McGregor, Johnston, and Marsan) climb the beanstalk to rescue her. We all know what is coming next, though it is imaginative and innovative in its execution. Not just a giant, but a race of giants await them. The giants eat humans and have long been plotting their return to Earth. They are led by a two-headed general – one head cunning and strong (Nighy) and the other mentally impaired (Kassir).
There are many twists and turns in the plot, some surprise double crosses, and the even more surprising early exit of several important characters. The giants are evil and the knights noble. Although he’s a commoner forbidden to marry one of royal blood, Jack falls in love with the princess, who returns that love.
Bryan Singer again works here with The Usual Suspects scripter Christopher McQuarrie, among other writers. Thus it’s especially unexpected that the film ultimately seems to be many parts in search of a whole – often excellent parts, but a muddled, unrealized whole. A terrific cast, intelligent direction, state-of-the-art special effects, a strong story, and skilled narrative construction all end up being much ado about not very much.