You don't know beans about this 'Jack' and his giants
By Susan Wloszczyna
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Snow White and Red Riding Hood, please go far, far away. It's time for the guys to test their movie mettle in Hollywood's live-action fairy-tale and storybook arena.
Jeremy Renner already took one for the boys in January, splattering blood instead of scattering crumbs to avenge his and his sister's abusive past in the R-rated “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.”
This week, anticipation is high as James Franco pulls back the curtain to reveal the origins of Dorothy's wizard in the family-friendly “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
And, in an adventure that is all but bereft of feminine influence save for the now-de-rigueur empowered princess, rising star Nicholas Hoult scrambles up the beanstalk and wages war with a race of rowdy, hygienically challenged giants in the sky-high adventure “Jack the Giant Slayer.”
Ever since 2010's “Alice in Wonderland” kicked off the trend by grossing $1 billion worldwide, “every major actress has tried out for an evil queen role,” says “Jack” producer and story co-creator David Dobkin. “How long can that go on? It was time for a different antagonist,” a few of which happen to bear the names of Fee, Fye, Foe and Fumm.
And a different hero, too. Adds Darren Lemke (“Shrek Forever After”), who originated and co-wrote “Jack's” script, “This is a male-oriented story of a boy becoming a man, much like Luke Skywalker in ‘Star Wars.' He dreams of doing something important in life. Through his journey, Jack becomes a man.”
Both believe leading man Hoult, 23, offers just what this genre requires — boy-band good looks and a 6-foot-3 physique — to pull off such a physical as well as emotional role.
“He's been solid in every performance so far,” says Lemke, including as Beast in “X-Men: First Class” and a Romeo of a zombie in “Warm Bodies.” “He is hugely believable, a plus considering everything that happens on-screen. You never doubt he is interacting with the giants, even if he is really looking at a tennis ball on a string.”
Also important to these stories is the right director. Bryan Singer was happy to take a break from comic-book adventures such as the X-Men franchise to explore new ground based on folklore of old.
“At the heart of fairy tales is darkness,” he says of the burgeoning genre's broad appeal. “There is a mature morality tale at the center of most of them. And since we all grew up with them, they are branded. There is room to make it more adult and appeal to everyone. These are stories for the whole family. At the center is real human conflict and discovery.”
Still, most studios refrain from labeling these movies as fairy tales. Such descriptions as “adventure” and “fantasy” are more likely to attract the hardest-to-convince demographic: guys in their teens and early 20s.
While Jack embraces its origins visually with its fairy-tale palette of gold and gem tones, the trailers — with their alt-metal soundtrack and action-heavy clips — are there to ensure that this is not just kids' stuff.
“No 12-year-old boy in the world is going to say, ‘Let's see a fairy-tale movie,' “ says Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. “Although ‘Jack' looks kind of cool to me, like a big, effects-driven epic in the style of “300.” If you are going to get young males in there, you have to sell it as ‘Yeah, let's kick some butt.' ”
“Jack the Giant Slayer” is so manly, however, that there is only one major female character: Princess Isabelle, played by strawberry-blond British newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson, 20, who taunted star Mia Wasikowska in “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Yes, there are many men, but not just any men,” she says of such co-stars as Hoult; Ewan McGregor as his knightly mentor, Elmont; Stanley Tucci as Isabelle's power-mad intended, Roderick; and Ian McShane as her troubled father, King Brahmwell.
‘Jack the Giant Slayer' Clip: Run!
“They looked after me and took me under their wing,” says Tomlinson. “It was enormous pressure for me to do such a huge project. When the cameras rolled, it was like a frat house sometimes. They played pranks on me, but I had a ball.”
The giants who dwell in the land of Gantua, where they have been banished until Jack accidentally opens a gateway back down to Earth with the proverbial magic beans, aren't quite as lucky. There are no females among them — which might explain their cranky moods and generally nasty habits.
“The idea of killing woman giants wouldn't work,” Singer says. “They were in the script at some point, along with giant babies, but it didn't make sense.”
Adds Dobkin, “There was a handmaid for Isabelle in the earlier drafts that got cut. But I grew up with movies like ‘The Guns of Navarone.' You rarely see a commando mission movie with a lot of women. Even the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean' only had Keira Knightley.”
If you are going to stack the cast with men, you can't go wrong with young Obi-Wan Kenobi, McGregor. “It is not every day that you get to play a knight,” he says. “Elmont is bold and brave but also sometimes headstrong and not effective. That is when Jack has to save the day. My character type goes back to the cartoon ‘Hong Kong Phooey,‘ where the sidekick has to sort everything out.”
The motorcycle enthusiast especially liked Elmont's on-the-job attire, which McGregor describes as “black-leather biker armor.”
Tucci, for one, is pleased that these sorts of mythical swashbuckling tales are suddenly in vogue. He freely admits borrowing Roderick's pomposity from the legendary Basil Rathbone.
“I have never been a British baddie before,” he says. “He is such a supremely mean person, this guy doesn't even bother trying to be good. I had so many flourishes, such as my rotten teeth. My dentist must be spinning in his office right now.”
The opening this weekend will tell whether all ages went to this PG-13 ode to make-believe, where giants munch on tiny humans as if they were turkey legs (not nearly as graphic as it sounds) and McGregor is placed on a baking sheet and tucked in pastry as if he were a pig in a blanket.
Dobkin notes that at test screenings, the film played well across the board: “Kids of all ages, male and female, adults and parents.” Perhaps surprisingly, “Jack” played best when the violence was toned down.
And oddly enough, given the emphasis on male characters, “the movie scored highest with women over 25,” Singer says. Ultimately, “Jack the Giant Slayer” might turn out to have something for everyone. “Guys like to watch cool guys, and girls like to see movies with cute cool guys.”
Susan Wloszczyna is a staff writer for USA Today.
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