Pop/Corn Movies: JACK THE GIANT KILLER

Reviewed by Master Filmmaker Mark Mackner

It was announced earlier this week that Bryan Singer (USUAL SUSPECTS, X-MEN, SUPERMAN RETURNS) will be directing a remake of JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962), the bastard stepson of the stop-motion fantasy classic 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Also earlier in the week, I read the terrific comic miniseries I KILL GIANTS (Totally unrelated to JACK, but there is some giant killing involved). So, with all this going on, I decided it was time to reach deep into my DVD library and take another look at this little gem.

I loved this movie as a kid. I saw it on a Sunday afternoon, on UHF, WAY back in the day. Mid-80’s, I’d say. Even then, it was easy to pick up on the similarities between JACK and 7th VOYAGE: same lead actor (Kerwin Mathews), same actor as the villain (The GREAT Torin Thatcher), the design of the giant is nearly identical to the infamous Cyclops in VOYAGE (Only difference? JACK’s giant has 2 eyes instead of one). There’s a leprechaun who gets the heroes out of trouble (VOYAGE had a Genie, but same idea). What I didn’t realize until I purchased the DVD two years ago, is that even the director (Nathan Juran) is the same.

The biggest difference, of course, is that the stop motion effects in VOYAGE were handled by the undisputed master of the craft, Ray Harryhausen. And, while they were clearly inspired by Ray, the team behind the creatures in JACK can’t hold a candle to the brilliance of the master. The animation is kinda jerky at times, and some of the creatures wouldn’t be out of place in a Rankin-Bass holiday special.

BUT… it totally works! Creatures appear early and often, and there’s nary a dull moment in the film. It’s incorrectly referred to as a “remake” of VOYAGE on imdb. While it did indeed try to capitalize on the success of VOYAGE, it is in no way a remake, and despite all the similarities, it manages to have a flavor all its’ own.

It plays like a classic, colorful storybook brought to life. The basic plot is simple, evil wizard Pendragon (Thatcher) has a giant abduct the lovely princess. The giant makes the mistake of coming across Jack’s farm, where there’s plenty of sharp objects around (Yes, this is intended for children!). Jack hacks the giant to death with a scythe (!) and becomes a hero. The king knights him, and sends him on a mission to travel with the princess to a place where she can live in seclusion until Pendragon is vanquished. Pendragon sends some witches to capture the princess and steal away with her to his castle, with Jack in hot pursuit.

So there’s the story. You’ve seen it a million times before, in books, films, and even video games. But JACK never comes off as trite or uninspired. The first stop motion creature, a little elf given to the princess on her birthday is CREEPY AS HELL! Somehow, she finds the thing charming, but to me, it looks like something that would be enough to give Toulon the Puppetmaster nightmares. It mimics her movements in a nicely animated sequence and generally gives you the willies. Later that evening, it grows into a giant, in a transformation mainly seen in silhouette. It brings to mind the bit where the Ymir beats the dog to death in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, and when the Calibos figurine in given horns and a tail in CLASH OF THE TITANS. Not QUITE as epic as those, but really nifty silhouette animation.

What follows is a really nicely staged giant attack on the kingdom, where it battles knights and Ren Faire suited villagers alike. The fight between Jack and the giant on Jack’s farm is lots of fun, too. And the frames where the giant appears with the actors were very skillfully executed, particularly the bit where the giant punches Jack to the ground.

Another highlight is when Pendragon sends the witches after the princess. You’d think that cartoon flames would look cheesy, but damn, if it doesn’t work here. My 6-year old insisted that they were ghosts, not witches, because they’re translucent and they fly. I’d have called them ghosts too, but whatever they are, they’re actually pretty scary. Really strong scene.

But, just as with most Harryhausen films, the real fun comes when two monsters have a colossal fight to the death. Here, it’s a two-headed giant vs. a sea monster, which resembles a dinosaur with tentacles instead of legs. Great fight, great scene.

The climax comes when Pendragon morphs into an actual dragon and goes after Jack. Jack clings to the monster’s back as it soars into the sky at dizzying heights. Again, the fact that the creature and actor appear in the same frame for much of the fight is really impressive, because you can actually believe that they’re both really there.

Did I mention that Jack picks up some sidekicks along the way? Well, he does. There’s a cabin boy and a Viking that tag along for the adventure, and they’re rewarded by being turned into a dog and a chimp. The chimp wears a black thong for some reason (Censors? But Cheetah the chimp didn’t have to wear underwear. WTF?), but SPOILER when Pendragon is defeated, the Viking and the kid are back to their old selves again, and all the heroes live happily ever after. But, really. If you can’t see that coming, then you’ve never heard a fairy tale before. But just because you can anticipate the ending, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun to get there.

But, unlike KING KONG, which I believed was flawless to begin with, there is room for improvement here, so I’m not against Bryan Singer doing a remake. Hopefully, it’ll be something I can take my kids to, because they sure loved the original!

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2 Comments to “Pop/Corn Movies: JACK THE GIANT KILLER”

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  1. JayDee says:

    I admit to never having seen these movies, my soon to be former friend.
    Sorry.

    Though I'm excited to maybe check it out now,
    nice review.

  2. Master Filmmaker Mark Mackner says:

    If I shunned everyone who never saw JACK THE GIANT KILLER, I'd be a very lonely man. Don't fret, our friendship is still intact. Not many have seen this one. You might like it, I dunno. Depends on how much of a stop motion geek you are. If it's not really your thing, then you'r eprobably not gonna dig it as much. Also, it helps to have seen it first as a kid. That's wghy it's so awesome for my kids to have me as a Dad. I'm gonna make sure they see all the shit I loved growing up, and it's all classic stuff.

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