Jack The Giant Killer (2013)
Company: The Asylum
Runtime: 90 mins
Plot: After climbing a giant beanstalk, Jack discovers a land in the clouds populated by evil beasts. When the beasts make their way down to Earth, he must figure out how to get back down and save everyone from the oncoming threat.
Review: Generally speaking, I am always stoked to see any film made by those maestros of mockbusting, The Asylum; this time around being no different. As they have done multiple times in the past, they have dipped into the fairy tale well, and Jack the Giant Killer (or simply just The Giant Killer in some parts of the world) is the result - their spin on the Jack And The Beanstalk tale - which was just in time to mockbust the big budget 'Jack The Giant Slayer'.
Whereas their theatrically released counterpoint was a medieval fantasy adventure, Asylum's movie is set in the United Kingdom, during an anachronistic pseudo-1950s, which adds a timelessness feel to the whole outing. Along those same lines would be the impressive locales and set design throughout, especially in the Cloud Realm; which is the land that the beanstalk leads to. The rather well rendered CGI'd flying castle, with its Victorian era steampunk outer aesthetic and hodgepodge of factory/sail boat inner aesthetic, contributes to that as well. The best here though is the stunning interior of the main villainess' palace. Combining ancient Greco-Roman statues and columns with 16th century European furnishings, with an early 20th century electric bent, and lots of long roaming tracking shots in there really do show it off. However, even the most amazing sets and production design wouldn't mean Jack (pun indented) if the story and characters weren't compelling or interesting. Luckily, The Asylum gives plenty of room for both an engaging fantasy-action plot and some solid characterizations. As discussed above, updating this from the original's medieval setting to a more modern one does help give it a unique look, but there are other fun twists on the old story that make this one of the Asylum's best movies, in my opinion.
The most interesting twist is that Jack's father, Newald, who has been trapped in the Cloud Realm since just before Jack was born, is the one that killed all of the original humanoid giants. Because of this, Jack has to contend with the beasts that those Giants had been keeping in check - giant dino-rhino-elephant-dog creatures that have six eyes, scales, thick hide, and a triceratops-esque skull (yes, as in no skin on it). I really enjoy the design here, looking simultaneously familiar and original. It helps that the CGI is above average, but I'll be getting to that momentarily. The next story element that got me really excited while watching is how time works in the Cloud Realm - One day there equals a year on Earth. This isn't just an allowance to cast Jack's dad younger (he's 29, which is only a few years older then Jack himself at this point), but becomes a pivotal plot point for the main Evil Queen Serena's arc. The implementation here works very well, as it's not just some throw away line, or forgotten subplot.
Another little interesting tidbit for this one is that there are three stalks featured: Two we see, the first being the one that whisks Jack away, with the second bringing his love interest/robot exoskeleton-building mate (yeah, that's as awesome as it sounds) to the fantasy land as well. The third, only mentioned, is the original stalk that brought Newald to the Cloud Realm. Having so many beanstalks adds depth to the world and its various rules, for instance each nightfall, on Earth, the stalks dissolve into harmless dust which adds some tension later on in addition to just giving things that little extra informative detail. The most intriguing rule though is that the only person who can travel a beanstalk is the one who planted it, and the vines of the beanstalk will attack anyone else that comes near it. This becomes grounds for some solid and intense action scenes throughout, filled with some of that previously-mentioned excellent CGI.
I know I just spent a long time talking about the world building here, and that's not only because there are lots of cool ideas at play, but because in a fantasy setting (and sci-fi for that matter, both of which this movie could fall under) it's important to have a fully believable world that seems to exist outside the confines of the movie you are watching. The Asylum, even in their worst movies, tend to make a pretty good go of this, which in my opinion is one of the reasons they are so popular. While I haven't seen every movie made by them, I have yet to see one that had as much care and thought put into their movie worlds as done here.
Now, as I stated above, the CGI here is, for the most part, very good. Lots of interesting designs, well-rendered, and some nice added small details here and there (such as the blinking of the individual six eyes on the giant beasts or the gears turning on the amazing flying castle - I really love this flying castle, guys!) The beanstalks look appropriately massive, and the practical vine effects don't look too rubbery or fake, with the stalks being integrated into the physical background environments fairly well, and in addition the giant creatures, minus a few scenes, seem to have some real weight to them and move rather realistically. Unfortunately, near the end during the big fight (maybe due to either budget or time constraints) the even-larger dino-dog creature leader starts to look a bit dodgy, even by Asylum standards, which sticks out all the more because of the better-than-average effects up until that point.
The acting from lead Jamie Atkins (no relation to writer/director/Asylum alum Mark Atkins), as Jack, is passable, and he does get better as the movie goes along; In the beginning he's too eager, like a puppy, and it comes across as a bit too hammy, but by the time we each the ending climatic battle though, he really delivers, especially in a somewhat heart-wrenching scene where he has to play both scared and brave at the same time. All in all, definitely not bad, especially when considering that this is the first movie I have seen him in. Playing alongside him is Vicki Glover as Lisa and she brings a lot of spunk and girl-next-door appeal to the role, which helps make you easily understand why Jack likes her. Jane March as Serena, the evil queen of the Cloud Realm, brings both an icy menace and a surprising amount of heart, especially in the second half where some excellent writing for the character turns her into a multifaceted one and ends her arc on a sweet note. Also I have to point out here that this isn't her first time playing an Evil Queen role for Asylum, having done it in Grimm's Snow White as well. On the flip-side from her, Tanya Windsor as Jack's mom may be serviceable, but she's also pretty forgettable. It doesn't help though that her character has very little to do other then just standing around.
For my money, though, it is Harry Dyer as Newald and Ben Cross as government liaison Hinton that steal the show. Dyer brings a Dr. Who-ish quality to Jack's dad, that makes him not only instantly likeable, but very sympathetic, and in just a few looks and some excellent delivery you feel bad for and forgive him for his various misdeeds, all at once. Cross' Hinton is the most serious of the bunch, and Cross imbues him with a nice sense of dutifulness and relatablity, so you can always understand his motivations.
This brings me to the few issues I have with the movie: Julian Boote just isn't that good as Nigel Mason, Jack's adoptive father. His line readings are stiff, and he looks uncomfortable the entire time, almost as if he didn't really want to be filming this movie. And as much as I enjoyed Vicki Glover as Jack's girlfriend, the character herself is written fairly one-dimensional. In addition, while a lot of the levity works and even adds to the unique feel of this movie, there is a subplot about a landlord trying to sell his property that just falls flat and I could have done without. Lastly is the score - overall it's pretty good and super effective, but in some sequences, especially during several dialog-heavy scenes, it is just too overbearing and drowns out the speech, making it hard to pick out what the characters are saying. While the story is simple enough to follow, that uneven sound mix can still be rather distracting and frustrating.
Moving back away from the few negatives though, longtime Asylum-collaborator Mark Atkins has made quite a few films for this company, but nothing would suggest the level of confidence he demonstrates with Jack the Giant Killer. With lots of long beautiful tracking shots and a nice focus on atmosphere, this is a very assured film with a clear vision from it's director. The fights are staged well and he keeps them moving at a nice pace, all the while keeping a good distance so we can see everything that is going on. Atkins keeps the twists and turns coming, but never spells too much out for the audience. Instead trusting them to be familiar enough with the old fairy tale, and classic movie tropes, to fill in the gaps.
Finally, I need to discuss the aforementioned robot exoskeleton. Looking a good deal like the load lifter from 'Aliens', but clunkier, and seemingly made from a tractor and sheer ingenuity, this thing kicks ass! Lisa and Jack are seen fiddling with it at the very beginning. and of course it comes back into play for the ending. And oh boy, when it does, it was definitely worth the wait - In order to save the day from the largest of the creatures, Jack puts it on and charges right to battle! It is a very heroic scene, and Jamie Atkins sells it perfectly. Seeing a red robot fight a fantastical creature is the exact reason I love these kinds of movies!
While not quite perfect, nor even the Asylum's best film (Age Of Dinosaurs is amazing, even when compared to big Hollywood blockbusters), the few flaws that it has doesn't strongly detract from all the things that Jack The Giant Killer does right. With an abundance of confidence and an intricately realized fictional world, this is worth the trip. Add to that two of my favorite Asylum performances so far, and you have a truly special film.
9/10 rooms in the Psych Ward