“Mother used to say the giants made the thunder.” And so, even as he seeks comfort from his father (Tim Foley), little boy Jack (Michael Self) reveals the key and supremely predictable plot point of his childhood: his mom had a nuanced, metaphorical mind and of course, his mom is dead. He and dad miss her, to be sure, but like so many kids in fairy- and folktales — and perhaps especially in movies based on them — his poverty, vulnerability and essential goodness are defined by his motherlessness.
This is underlined as this first scene in Jack the Giant Slayer expands into a clever comparative sequence: while Jack’s father comforts him during the thunderstorm by telling him his favorite story about human-eating giants menacing and being duly vanquished by King Erik, another child hears the same story — from her mother. This child is Isabelle (Sydney Rawson), the princess of the kingdom Cloister, whose mother (Tandi Wright) comforts her in a decidedly more comfortable setting, that is, a gigantic imperial bedroom featuring a soft bed and rich ornamentation. Both parents tell the same story, and both encourage their children to see themselves as the hero of it. Whether a boy or a girl, a royal or a commoner, each might imagine growing up to be valiant and strong and triumphant.
Ah well. Such imaginings are soon cast aside when the film lurches from this past prelude to its present day action, when teenaged Jack (now played by Nicholas Hoult) is now completely parentless and living with his uncle (Christopher Fairbank) on a muddy farm in the grimmest rural backwater of Cloister. Sent into town to sell his uncle’s horse, Jack has a brief encounter with Isabelle (grown up into Eleanor Tomlinson), who has snuck away from the palace to spend some disguised time among the peasants. Their exchange is at once promising, as he saves her from a couple of peasant bullies, and also disappointing, as she’s hauled away by her proper and late-to-the-scene guardians, including the noble knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor).
Her rescue leads directly to a scene you might expect: returned to the palace, Isabelle is scolded by her worried parent, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane). He’s charming and not a little comic, what with his broad-chested golden armor and spindly legs in tights, not to mention the king’s wide red cape erected for show, which he leaves behind in order actually to walk. He is also widowed, for the princess, like her beau to be, is now motherless.
It’s a minor plot point in both cases, to be sure, as Isabelle and Jack will soon enough be off on a terrific adventure concerning the very giants whose legends thrilled them as children. But it’s also a telling minor plot point, one that pre-ordains the roles each teenager will play in that adventure. Jack, per his titular designation, will be the giant slayer, like the courageous king Erik. And Isabelle will be rescued.
This adventure — as you know — is jumpstarted by a packet of magic beans, bestowed on him by a monk, who warns him, “Whatever you do, don’t let them get wet.” You also know what happens next. It rains, a lot. This leads to one of the beans getting very wet, and then sprouting into a humungous beanstalk that carries the princess — who happens to be visiting Jack at that very moment — away into the sky. Horrified by this news, King Brahmwell sends a team to retrieve her, including Jack, Elmont and his number two, Crawe (Eddie Marsan), and also the fellow he’s selected to marry Isabelle, Roderick (Stanley Tucci). After quite a bit of climbing, the men do indeed locate Isabelle — just as she’s being brutally interrogated by extremely ugly and noisy giants.
It’s a grisly scene, the lead interrogator a lumpy, gruesome two-headed giant, General Fallon (his two heads voiced by Bill Nighy and John Kassir). As he paces and looms and threatens the princess in order to learn how she came up to their fortress in the sky and who might be coming after her. The scene makes abundantly clear the monstrosity of the giants, which you already know because you’ve seen them consuming humans, biting off heads and tossing torsos with visible relish.
Witnessing these brutalities, the knights and Jack, are resolved more than ever to complete their multipart mission, to rescue Isabelle and vanquish the giants. They run into a few obstacles, of course, including the giants’ efforts to cook and eat their captives (one of the would-be rescuers finds himself rolled up and floured in pastry, then cast into an oven alongside a couple of pigs in similar circumstances) and also a rather violent betrayal by Roderick and his snivelly minion Wicke (Ewan Bremmer). This last involves a scheme to take over rule of the kingdom, which you know about pretty much right away. By the time the knights and Jack discover it, well, it’s awfully late.
The obstacles are laid out in an episodic plot, such that Jack and Elmont and eventually, the freed Isabelle too, encounter one ordeal after another wherein they must be smart and elusive or smart and aggressive. These scenes are first set against giant doorways and furniture and kitchen implements, in the giants’ fortress in the sky, and then against a human-sized backdrop, once the giants make their way to earth, despite the knights, Isabelle, and Jack’s best efforts to stop them. This last episode is full of special-effecty fury, the giants throwing rather large rocks and flaming trees and the humans firing off decidedly puny-looking arrows.
The contrast in scale — and also in behavior — ensures that the giants are utterly bad and so deserving of vanquishment, the more the better. Like the motherless children, this plot detail is not surprising, but it does reinforce very basic presumptions, including the idea that good and bad are easy to see. It might even be that such clichés are related, that the tendency to see the world in broad, absolutely defined categories is a function of lost mothers.