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Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 02:54 am

Jack revitalizes classic tale

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Nicholas Hoult in Jack the Giant Slayer.

While Hollywood studios are often criticized for having a lack of imagination where feature films are concerned (too many sequels and reboots, thank you) and have been knocked recently for plumbing the fairy-tale vault far too often, if each retold legend is as well-crafted and smart as Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer, I’d willingly sit through a movie about “Tom Thumb.” Intelligently written, imaginatively realized and with a touch of humor that’s never self-aware, this oft-told tale of an eager boy, some magic beans and an enormous plant in dire need of trimming, proves to be vibrant entertainment that benefits from the conviction of its cast and Singer’s ability to effectively render the film’s fanciful elements alongside the characters’ humanity with equal conviction.

The traditional fairy tale serves as the foundation for the film, telling the tale of a young man and woman, each from separate social stations, yet on parallel paths. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is an 18-year-old with his head in the clouds. Naive but with a good heart, he lives with his uncle (Christopher Fairbank) in a rundown shack on the edge of the kingdom known as Glouster and longs for adventure. On a trip to town, he not only mistakes the lovely Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) for a commoner but is also duped into taking a bag of magic beans in exchange for his horse. While Jack has to face the wrath of his uncle, the young lady is forced to contend with her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), who’s arranged for her to be married to his most-trusted advisor Roderick (Stanley Tucci, channeling Basil Rathbone). This does not sit well with her, so she flees the castle that rainy night, only to find herself forced to seek shelter from the storm, at what turns out to be Jack’s humble hovel.

Circumstances occur in which the magic beans are accidentally planted, a huge multi-tendril stalk rapidly grows and poor Isabelle is whisked up beyond the clouds where she finds herself in a realm of exiled giants. Ordered to rescue her are the leaders of the king’s guard, Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and Crawe (Eddie Marsan), with Jack, Roderick, his right-hand stooge Wicke (Ewen Bremner) and a handful of victims, I mean soldiers, in tow.

The film is surprisingly dense. A captivating back story involving the giants and a magic crown that controls them is told before the film’s opening title card appears, while elements of court intrigue are dispensed with in a quick, engaging and clever manner. Credit the three screenwriters, particularly Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for penning Singer’s The Usual Suspects, for taking such a literate approach to the material, never treating it as a children’s tale but as a coming-of-age story told as a grand adventure.

And quite an adventure it is. Jack and his crew must not only escape from the giants, who are a barbaric and frightening crew, but also a traitor within their ranks who hopes to bend these behemoths to his will for personal gain. Be forewarned that some of the violence is gruesome and you should not get too attached to anyone in the cast. Some unexpected fatalities occur, which only increases the film’s tension that Singer effectively maintains with the crisp pace he employs.

The veterans in the cast lend great support to the two young leads as McGregor, Tucci, McShane and Marsan each create distinctive characters without ever going over the top. They allow Hoult and Tomlinson to shine and that they do. This film, as well as the recent Warm Bodies, proves that the young actor is a star in the making. Handsome, self-effacing and charming, Hoult is as natural on screen as green is on frogs. He’s a delight to watch while Tomlinson, in her first major role, is captivating, providing Isabelle with the proper balance of strength and vulnerability, carving out her own place on screen with confidence. And while the giants are a sight to see, it’s these two you want to spend the most time with, as Hoult and Tomlinson provide the human element in this wonderfully told fantasy.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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