"Jack the Giant Slayer" may have easily won this weekend's box-office race with an estimated $28 million, but its victory over a weak field of new releases and moldy holdovers may not be worth a hill of magic beans.
For one thing, the movie cost nearly $200 million to make, so $28 million is a pretty weak opening. (Many pundits are comparing it to "John Carter," the expensive sci-fi fantasy flop that opened a year ago at this time, eked out a $30.2 million debut, and petered out at $73.1 million.) Plus, "Jack" faces the opening of the similar "Oz the Great and Powerful" next weekend, which will probably cut short the possibility that "Jack" can earn its keep over the long haul.
Industry observers seemed to have their knives sharpened for "Jack," which was initially due in theaters last summer but was held back, ostensibly to tweak its special effects and 3D visuals. That sort of delay is often an ominous sign. Box-office pundits predicted for "Jack" a soft opening in the upper 20s, filling the weekend with dire warnings. Besides, critics (and perhaps moviegoers) are fatigued with the whole genre of visually lavish fantasy/fair-tale updates, as is clear from Todd McCarthy's much-quoted lede in his otherwise generally positive review of "Jack" for the Hollywood Reporter:
When will all the dead-serious $200 million battle-centered giant-infested similarly cast rousingly scored fabulously rendered 3D fairy-tale reimaginings all finally merge together into one enormous Anglophilic fantasmagoria of monarchical order and virtue so we can all be done with this for the time being?
The boom in rebooted fairy tales began three years ago this month with the surprise smash success of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," which earned $334.2 million in North America and more than $1 billion worldwide. The Tim Burton retelling didn't just open up the month of March for the sort of blockbuster fantasy and sci-fi fare once reserved for summer (see March 2011's "The Adjustment Bureau," or last March's "Wrath of the Titans," "Mirror Mirror," and "The Hunger Games"), but it also started a vogue for a particular kind of updated fantasy film, of the sort McCarthy is now tired of.
Still, despite critical fatigue and the failure of "Jack" to enchant domestic moviegoers, it doesn't look like the fairy tale frenzy will be over soon. Here's why:
"Oz." Next week's fantasy is expected to succeed where this week's failed. Made by Disney, "Oz" hews much closer to the template established by "Alice" (at least visually) than "Jack" did. Also, it's based on a story with greater emotional investment (or, if you prefer, brand awareness) than "Jack." We already know from Broadway's "Wicked" that a "Wizard of Oz" prequel can work. And this one, unlike "Jack," has some modest star power (James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz).
Untapped audiences. According to Variety, "Jack" is doing well overseas, especially in Asia, which is surprising, considering that viewers there probably didn't grow up hearing "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a bedtime story. And according to BoxOffice.com, it played like both a family movie and an adult action thriller, drawing an audience that was more than half male and more than half over 25. That male action audience isn't necessarily the crowd you'd expect for a fairy tale retelling, but as last year's hit "Snow White and the Huntsman" proved, you can get those viewers if you play up the story's more martial elements. No doubt the makers of upcoming fantasy films will look at the lessons of "Jack" and tweak accordingly.
Hobbits. McCarthy is particularly tired of the Tolkien saga, and it's hard to blame him when Peter Jackson is stretching out a fairly slim novel into what threatens to be a nine-hour epic. Nonetheless, the first "Hobbit" was a worldwide smash, as the next two are likely to be. So they'll only fuel the desire among studios to mount their own old-school fantasies, to be filmed using cutting-edge technology and visuals.
Public domain. Most fantasy characters date back far enough that you don't have to pay anyone for the story rights.
Franchise potential. Many of these fantasy characters come with sequel-ready potential. (Indeed, many are based on successful series of novels.) This August, we'll see "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters," a modern-day update of classic Greek myths and a sequel to "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief." October will see "The Seventh Son," the launch of the witchcraft-themed "Wardstone Chronicles" franchise. Due next February is another franchise launcher, "Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters." Coming next summer is "Maleficent," a "Sleeping Beauty" retold from the point of view of the witch, played by Angelina Jolie. And there's also a sequel to "Snow White and the Huntsman" on the drawing board.
Given how many of these movies are already in production or in the can awaiting release, the fairy tale trend seems far from over. There will be beanstalks yet to climb for at least another couple of years.
Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly
"The giants <a href="http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20483133_20657932,00.html">are a kick to watch</a>, but when they talk, they might as well be soccer hooligans at a pub. Any feeling of horrific wonder fades fast."
Mary Pols at TIME
"<a href="http://entertainment.time.com/2013/02/28/jack-the-giant-slayer-fee-fi-ho-hum/">The movie feels so much like a video game</a> that your fingers instinctively itch to do something, though a 'Jack' video game isn’t one we’d really want to play."
Michael O'Sullivan at the Washington Post
"<a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/gog/movies/jack-the-giant-slayer-3d,1206568/critic-review.html">Too scary for very young children</a>, yet too silly for most older fans of director Bryan Singer’s earlier forays into the 'Superman' and 'X-Men franchises,' 'Jack' seems designed to appeal to a very narrow, and possibly illusory, demographic: the mature moppet."
Matt Singer at ScreenCrush
"<a href="http://screencrush.com/jack-the-giant-slayer-review/">Speaking of the action</a>, a movie with so many special effects — giant beanstalks and giant battle scenes and giant giants — lives and dies by the quality of those visuals and the ones in ‘Jack and the Giant Slayer’ just aren’t very memorable."
Tom Charity at CNN International
"<a href="http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/01/showbiz/movies/jack-giant-slayer-review/">So much sexier than 'Beanstalk,</a>' don't you think? But that's what this film is -- the old Grimm folktale spruced up with state of the art visual effects and maximized battle action, coupled with a more playful, family-friendly approach than filmmakers took in 'Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters' and 'Snow White and the Huntsman.'"
Kenneth Turan at the LA Times
"It's not only Jack <a href="http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-jack-the-giant-slayer-review-20130301,0,6320761.story">who deserves some pity</a> but also director Bryan Singer, who somehow convinced himself that this benighted project was worth his time"
Matt Patches at Hollywood.com
"Turning 'Jack and the Beanstalk' into a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic sounds like the premise of a MADtv sketch, but director Bryan Singer <a href="http://www.hollywood.com/movies/review/55002760/jack-the-giant-slayer-review">finds a happy medium between grand action filmmaking and the dapper whimsy of an Errol Flynn adventure</a> with 'Jack the Giant Slayer.'"
Richard Roeper at Chicago Sun-Times
"Director Bryan Singer, a first-rate cast and a stellar team of screenwriters, set designers and special-effects wizards <a href="http://www.rogerebert.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130227/REVIEWS/130229979/1023">have dusted off an old and (let's face it) never particularly compelling fairy tale</a> and have given us a great-looking thrill ride in which we actually care about a number of characters."
David Edelstein at NYMag
"You come away <a href="http://www.vulture.com/2013/02/movie-review-jack-the-giant-slayer.html">thinking that the world is more complicated than humans versus giants</a> -- that the answer isn’t killing the brutes but exploring in, say, a good liberal editorial 'Our Giant Problem.'"
Tom Russo at the Boston Globe
"Never mind that 'Jack and the Beanstalk' was just covered by DreamWorks’ 'Puss in Boots.' If Singer feels he can think through certain narrative implications in a clever was -- <a href="http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/2013/02/28/movie-review-jack-the-giant-slayer/iE0hBqGsf2nGs4BcAnLdVI/story.html">and this story does, even with a script by committee</a> -- then count him in."