Friday Flotsam: ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ and Going Back

1. The big exciting thing from this past week I think deserves it’s own post, so I’ll talk about that one later.

2. I pulled up 2013’s Jack the Giant Slayer earlier this week. You know, I’m a little torn on that; on the one hand, it’s silly, cheap-looking (especially in the costumes), it’s depiction of the Medieval World is hilariously off, and overall pretty mediocre. On the other hand, I feel I ought to give it credit for the fact that it plays the material straight with absolutely no subversion; the hero is brave and righteous, the heroine is only mildly rebellious, gets rescued multiple times, and is grateful for it, the king is a noble leader and a loving father, the knight is valiant and loyal, and the giants are brutal savages who aren’t remotely misunderstood. It’s fun and almost really good. Had the plot been more straightforward (we really don’t need the evil courtier to fill out the first half, or the magic crown stuff) and had the Medieval milieu been within spitting distance of something that’s ever existed on this planet, we could have had a really solid fantasy film. As it is, it’s light, fun, and kind of miraculous in it’s way, but objectively speaking pretty middle-of-the-road.

3. I also appreciated that (though the Church is oddly absent), the one monk character is a good guy, and that the knight played by Obi-Wan Kenobi takes time out to actually mourn his fallen comrades. And the fact that both Jack and the Princess have positively-depicted fathers. And at the end there’s kind of a wonderful bit of symbolism where the magic crown gets incorporated into the British Royal Crown, symbolically placing the story in context as an essential element of Anglo culture (I mean, most films today wouldn’t even acknowledge Anglo culture as being worth recognizing in the first place, let alone celebrating). So, overall, I liked it a lot despite its many flaws; it’s a dumb and imperfectly executed story, but one that happens to hit a lot of my tastes.

4. That said, as noted the Medieval milieu feels like something that was cooked up by a writer whose only contact with the Medieval world is fairy tales, and not a close reading of them at that. Like how Jack stumbles over trying to explain that he and his uncle are tenant farmers (as if the Princess would be at all unfamiliar with that concept), or the fact that the King wants to marry his daughter to his evil courtier rather than a neighboring prince or lord, which makes no sense. Or, as noted, the almost complete absence of the Church (at one point Jack’s uncle sneers “they don’t have any money: they’re monks!” forgetting that monasteries were often extremely wealthy). The prologue even talks about how the monks made the magic beans “to try to get closer to God”, which is absurd in about three or four different ways. As I say, the film’s setting isn’t remotely connected to anything that’s ever existed historically, which wouldn’t be a problem except that the epilogue explicitly places it in the context of real world history.

The more one learns of the Medieval era, the more ridiculous most fantasy stories become.

5. By the way, despite the name this film is based on ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ (no, I don’t know why they didn’t just call it that) and has nothing to do with ‘Jack the Giant Killer‘ or the 1962 film of the same name, which was a desperate rip-off of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (right down to hiring the same director and the same hero and villain and hitting most of the same story beats…but without being even a quarter as effective. I really have to do a compare-contrast of those two films one day, because it’s kind of fascinating). Though oddly enough, I think that film actually feels more genuinely Medieval than this one. For one thing, Jack actually gets knighted before romancing the Princess in that film, and there’s some awareness of dynastic intrigue. Though I will say that, overall, I think I like Giant Slayer better than Giant Killer, a rare example of a latter day film trumping a vintage one with a similar premise.

It helps that, as a villain, Bill Nighy is actually an adequate match for Torin Thatcher.

6. You know, a lot of people look back and want to return to previous eras, like the 90s or 80s or even the 50s. The problem with that (I mean, apart from the obvious issue of ‘how time works’) is that our era is derived from trends present in those eras. So, if we could somehow return society to a state similar to the 1990s, then unless we also made serious changes to our neo-90s culture (enough to make it not really the neo-90s anymore), we’d simply end up exactly where we are a second time.

7. By the way, if we’re continually looking back and thinking how much better things were, it might be a sign that we should stop fiddling with everything and admit we’re lost. It reminds me of that one Far Side cartoon:

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