A Boy, a Beanstalk, and the Power of Storytelling

Review of Jack the Giant Slayer, Directed by Bryan Singer


Once upon a time, giants roamed the English countryside, crushing and consuming anyone who stood in their way. After much violence and property damage, a solution was finally found in the form of a magical crown that enabled the wearer to control the troll-like giants. King Erik (the wearer of said crown) sent them packing back to Gantua, their home in the clouds. The kingdom was saved, and Erik was eventually buried with the crown (along with the remaining beans capable of producing the beanstalks that allowed the giants access to the human world in the first place).

It wasn’t long before the story of King Erik and the giants faded into mere legend—bedtime reading for young Jack (a peasant) and Isabelle (a princess), both of whom love the story. Time passes yet again, taking with it both of Jack’s parents and Isabelle’s mother. The children themselves are now attractive youths on the cusp of adulthood. Jack’s uncle berates him for his absentmindedness and his inability to sell the family horse for a more than a handful of beans. Isabelle’s father—the king—remains convinced that her place is in the castle, sheltered from adventure, while a man runs the kingdom. In her case, the man will be Lord Roderick, the king’s advisor and Isabelle’s future husband (who, by the by, just happens to have some very suspicious artifacts in his possession). Of course, Isabelle runs away, and equally of course she runs smack into Jack, and they bond over, I don’t know, their shared longing for adventure or something—and also the fact that they both loved the giant story once upon a time. Meanwhile, the magic beans do what magic beans always do—plant themselves at an inopportune place. This particular inopportune place results in Isabelle getting stranded up in Gantua while Jack, Roderick, and the captain of the guard (along with assorted minions) must risk their lives to return her to safety. Only it turns out that the giants are none-too-pleased with their banishment, and Roderick may have plans of a decidedly sinister nature.

I have not seen the TV spots and trailers for Jack the Giant Slayer, but I’m told that they were … not good. Allow me to assure you that the movie is nowhere near as bad as the marketing would apparently suggest. In fact, it’s actually quite good. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Sure, it’s chock full of laughably CGI’d giants and a soundtrack that desperately wants to be mistaken for The Lord of the Rings, but it’s fun, darn it! There are some good one-liners along the way, the action sequences are fairly creative, and the casting is above-average for this sort of flick. Nicholas Hoult has grown up quite a bit since I last saw him in About a Boy (2002), and his wide-eyed, dreamy vibe is a good fit for the head-in-the-clouds Jack (who spends most of the film clad in what looks suspiciously like a hoodie, tee shirt, and jeans). Eleanor Tomlinson is likewise a good fit for Princess Isabelle—appropriately spunky, lovely enough to warrant Jack’s immediate infatuation, and intelligent enough to know an unlikely hero when she sees one. Ian McShane sheds his bad-guy persona in favor of an old-fashioned but genuinely affectionate father (though I admit it’s rather jarring to hear him deliver any line that’s not punctuated by pungent profanity). Bill Nighy does excellent voice work as Fallon, the leader of the giants (though I wish the CGI team had made more use of his face, and not just his voice). Stanley Tucci is positively delicious as the eeeevil Lord Roderick—though he should really shave the beard so as to maximize his mustache-twirling potential. But for my money, the real star of the picture is Ewan McGregor as the sprightly and stalwart captain of the guard, Elmont. He exudes that quintessentially British brand of courage, all bright cheerfulness and unshakable loyalty and unflappable sangfroid. I can’t remember Ewan McGregor ever being so likable. He was a delight to watch—and I’m not usually a big Ewan McGregor fan.

But enough of the execution—what of the substance? Does Jack the Giant Slayer have Important Things to Say? Well, yes and no. At the end of the day, it’s really just a fun family flick (provided your family doesn’t mind seeing giants chow down on a few unfortunate humans). But like all fairy tales, there’s more to it than just good clean fun. Fairy tales are famous for their tropes—damsels in distress, the contrast between appearance and reality, the triumph of virtue, etc.—and this film has loads.* But I think my biggest takeaway was the important role of storytelling in child development.

Both Jack and Isabelle grew up with the advantage of a parent who read to them. They heard stories of daring adventures, of dangerous villains and the heroes who opposed them. Fairy tales are full of life lessons—they extol the virtues of bravery and self-sacrifice, and decry the evils of greed, selfishness, and jealousy. Isabelle’s mother uses the story of the giants as an opportunity to encourage her daughter to do good in the world, to be like the heroes of her favorite stories. It is implied that Jack’s ‘heroism’ (such as it is) is due in large part to the stories he was raised on. He was taught how a hero behaves, and when faced with a crisis, he emulates those he admires.

As Christians, we also look to the examples of others and model our behavior on theirs. Certainly no human being is perfect. Only Christ is worth of emulation across the board, and it is ultimately His example that we are following. But there is great merit in studying the lives of those who have followed Him before us—whether we see them in the pages of Scripture or in more recent history. My pastor often extols the benefits of reading Christian biographies for precisely this reason.  We can model our lives on the admirable qualities we see in others. We can aspire to have faith like Abraham, to flee temptation like Joseph, to be bold like Caleb and humble like Moses, to give good counsel like Abigail, to share the gospel boldly like Paul. We can be challenged to hold steadfastly to our faith like Polycarp, to repent of sin like Cranmer and Newton, and to celebrate and embrace the gift of grace like Luther and Calvin.

And it’s not just real-life characters who have the power to inspire and challenge us. I remember as a child being convicted by the cheerful, selfless humility of Polly in Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl, the moral courage of Jane Eyre, the seemingly limitless patience of James Herriot, the indefatigable loyalty of Samwise Gamgee—all these characters shaped my understanding of what it meant to be an honorable (and God-honoring) human being.

By so doing, we do not idolize these men and women, whether real or imagined; rather, we follow them as they follow Christ. (I Corinthians 11:1) His is the ultimate standard—the hero against whom all other heroes are measured. He is the only one who was ever a hero through and through, who never turned tail and ran, who never valued his own health and well-being over that of another. But the all-surpassing virtues of Christ can sometimes be glimpsed in the lives of mere mortals. These admittedly pale reflections of our perfect Savior are still worthy of imitation. In this sense, the gift of stories—be they fairy tales or bible stories, legends or historical accounts—is one of tremendous value in the life of a child. Or a grown-up, for that matter.

*The film makes a rather half-hearted gesture toward its empowered female viewers, as Isabelle challenges her father’s belief that she cannot rule the kingdom, but needs a husband to do it for her. This theme is reiterated as various characters comment on ‘all the good she can do’ as queen. But when push comes to shove, the film sidesteps the issue of her fitness to rule completely, and appears to reach the rather disappointing conclusion that what she needed was not the chance to prove herself as a ruler, but a better man to do the ruling for her. I’m no feminist, but if you’re going to lay all that ‘girls can do stuff, too’ groundwork, you should probably follow through.


Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.

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