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I’ve been astonished by the number of fairy tales for adults that have appeared lately on the big screen, or even the small one, and I’ve realized that I’d enjoy writing about them occasionally.  So here we have it: my first blog series.  You, dear reader, are in at the beginning.

I almost missed this one entirely, and that would have been a pity because “Jack the Giant-Killer” is an uncommon tale type to find on film… although now that I think about it, this especially adventuresome story seems uncommonly well-suited to be filmed for family viewing, offering as it does an adaptable young hero (any age between 12 and 20 will work), a lot of scope for trickery and humor, and great potential for special effects (magic lands! giant plants! magic gifts! giant giants!).  The movie takes merry advantage of these opportunities to give us a live-action fairy tale with enough grotesquerie to please younger persons, enough humor to entertain older ones, enough action to keep it moving and a bit of romance, just for seasoning.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” has taken some flak around the internets from critics, who have pointed out (rightly) that the plot is both slight and predictable.  Well, sure.  What fairy tale isn’t predictable?  They are by their very nature brief and formulaic – and I say that as someone who loves them.  Jack tales are typically about clever peasant boys who go out to seek their fortunes and make good through a combination of cleverness, kindness, and luck.  “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant-Killer” are the best known of them, but if you’d like to know more about the group of stories on which the movie was based, see Stephen Winick’s masterful overview, “Jack the Giant Slayer: Some Folklore Background” or his more thorough article, “Do You Know Jack?”.   The movie hews closely to the tales, and there is little to spoil by telling the plot: peasant Jack trades his horse for magic beans, climbs the resultant beanstalk, and battles the giants.  The movie throws a princess and a human villain into the mix, and the giants descend the beanstalk for a third act on land.  The most significant tweak, to my mind, was that the movie’s Jack did not actually “go out to seek his fortune”.  His gateway to adventure was saving this princess.  And this leads to the movie’s most significant flaw (to my mind): if you’re going to add in a whole brand-spanking-new princess, MUST she be the sort who needs rescuing six or seven times?  I left the theatre saying, “Couldn’t SHE have been the one, there at the end…?”  To which B replied, “But it’s called JACK the Giant Slayer, not Princess the Giant Slayer.”

This is the part where I tell you: this movie was not subversive.  It was not feminist.  (Trying to escape marrying the creepy older man is not especially feminist.  It’s just sensible.)  It did not revise or adapt the story in particularly interesting ways.  It was not a parody.  It did not take pot shots at the Disney canon, nor did it copy from its playbook.  It did not mock itself.  It did not mock its audience.  It was just a straight-up story.

And lest you think I’m criticizing, I thought that was its chiefest pleasure.  It had an unabashed STORYNESS to it.  There is nothing realistic or dramatic about this movie.  It never tries to tug your heartstrings.  It has no winking postmodern sensibility; it does not break the fourth wall.  It’s not trying to be a single thing other than a ripping good story.  At the same time, it is aware of itself as a story, a story with a history, and with a future.  It makes effective use of a frame narrative, in the form of a bedtime fairy tale, told to children, replayed throughout the movie, repeated at the end, and set in motion again in the last frames.  The movie knows that stories are important, that they shape and inspire their listeners.  It knows that stories evolve and are cyclic.

A classic panto performance was one of the many tellings embedded within the movie, and the entire aesthetic embraced panto style: broadly humorous, reveling in the grotesque and the vulgar (although stopping short of the bawdy).  The villain positively relishes his own knavery, and his minion chortles with eager malice.  The good guys get bopped on the head quite a bit in the early confrontations.  The giants are lumbering and flatulent; the most frightening thing about them is their hygiene.

It’s broad and it’s coarse, rollicking, familiar, and fun.  It’s just a story, and that’s just fine.

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