Ewan McGregor may have played a fan-favorite Jedi Knight, but this fantasy movie has him playing a very different one.
Ewan McGregor finally returned to the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in an eponymous Disney+ series this year, after decades of being considered pretty much the best thing about the George Lucas-helmed Star Wars prequel. Once again, we got to see Ewan McGregor swing a sword (albeit of the laser variety) around and we got to see him be a dashing if aged and uncertain Knight of the Jedi variety. However, between Revenge of the Sith in 2005 and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor starred in a different kind of fantasy film: 2013’s Jack the Giant Slayer. Despite flopping hard at the box office and receiving mixed reviews at best, the film is currently in the top ten most streamed movies on HBO Max, which is an unexpected resurgence for a movie.
Jack the Giant Slayer stars Ewan McGregor as Elmont, the captain of the king’s guard in the kingdom of Cloister, a generically far-off and ancient land. Jack himself is played by Nicholas Hoult and is a young and honest farm boy, who is first seen in the movie as a young boy being told the legend of a long-ago battle against fearsome giants. It seems these giants came from a mysterious realm in the sky and invaded Cloister, until they were turned back by King Erik and his magic crown. In the modern day, the latest king is Ian McShane (wearing a grand suit of golden armor), who plans to marry his adventurous daughter Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) to Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci). Despite Tucci essentially oozing malevolence from every pore and being distrusted by Ewan McGregor and everyone else in the world, the otherwise intelligent Ian McShane has complete faith in him.
Nicholas Hoult, being noble and good of heart, exchanges the horse he was meant to sell to try to save his family’s farm for a handful of beans from a desperate monk. As one might guess, the beans do turn out to be magical, they do cause an enormous beanstalk to grow up to pierce the clouds themselves, and there be giants up there. Mean, evil giants, who long to get revenge for their long-ago defeat. Eleanor Tomlinson ends up stranded in the giants’ realm, Ewan McGregor is tasked with returning her, Nicholas Hoult and Stanley Tucci tag along (as well as a knight played by an oddly cast Eddie Marsan), and more people than you might think for this family-friendly movie are devoured alive.
Jack and the Giant Slayer is a very odd movie, but that does not make it an interesting one. It is largely a combination of elements from the fairytales “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” both of which are hundreds of years old and of uncertain origin. On the other hand, this particular Ewan McGregor movie was written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney, from a story by Lemke and David Dobkin. Most Hollywood films have more people working on the script than are acknowledged in the credits, but the more credits there are, usually the more complicated things got behind the scenes. Apparently, director Bryan Singer was interested in making a dark, more adult-oriented version of the fairytale, while New Line Cinema wanted a more family-friendly, PG-13 story. The difference appears to have been split, and as usually happens, being neither hot nor cold ends up giving you a lukewarm product.
There are occasional elements of a more interesting movie in Jack the Giant Slayer. Ewan McGregor is cast against type as a strong-jawed, action star type; while he can largely pull it off, there is something a bit odd at seeing him play something of a benevolent Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Periodically, there are brief beats that make it seem like the idea of this kind of hero is being gently mocked, but not anything substantive. Even more oddly than the casting of Ewan McGregor is the extended ending of the film, which reveals that over the course of centuries or maybe millennia, the giant-controlling crown has become St Edward’s Crown, the ancestral jewel of the British royal family currently on display at the Tower of London. Why anyone involved with the film felt it necessary to cap off this fantasy story in which Ewan McGregor stabs Stanley Tucci in the foot with a dagger by implying Prince Charles can control giants is anyone’s guess.
Jack the Giant Slayer was reported as losing up to $50 million for New Line Cinema and currently holds a 52% on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite the sheer amount of talent and technical skill involved (except for the opening animation of giants, which is so bad it needs to be believed to be seen), Jack the Giant Slayer is an odd and hamstrung movie on every level. But still, it’s climbing the beanstalk of HBO Max if you want to see it.