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Frenetic fairy tales are more like video games than movies

Published: Wednesday, March 13 2013 5:56 p.m. MDT

Nicholas Hoult as Jack in "Jack the Giant Slayer."

Warner Bros. Picture

When Walt Disney was adapting fairy tales and children’s stories as animated features, beginning with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, audiences and critics generally embraced them: “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi,” “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” “Sleeping Beauty,” etc. Whatever your generation, you’ve watched them all, right?

But detractors who saw them as watered-down and overly cutesy referred to them as “The Disney Version,” using the phrase as a pejorative term meaning formulaic and sugary — especially after the publication of Richard Schickel’s critical 1968 book of that title.

Today, instead of cutesy or sugary, adaptations of beloved children’s stories are frenzied and loud and so in your face they might be referred to as “the video-game version,” since that seems to be a direct influence.

Disney has jumped into the fray with both “Oz the Great and Powerful” and, a few years ago, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but it’s equally true of other studios’ efforts. And these frenetic fairy tales seem to be coming at a fast-and-furious rate. It’s only March, and in addition to “Oz,” 2013 has already brought us “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”

At least the “Hansel and Gretel” film is rated R, so it clearly isn’t for kids, despite its literary origin.

Such is not the case with “Jack the Giant Slayer.” Although the film carries a cautionary PG-13 as it combines the stories of “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” this one is very much aimed at children, apparently with little regard for kids being exposed to its surprising level of violence. Many, many deaths are depicted of both the live-action humans and the animated giants, some in rather gruesome ways, such as the giant that is squished, causing his eyeball to pop out at the screen, an obvious made-for-3-D moment. In addition, the film is dark and dingy, clamorous and bombastic, dirty and crude and generally unpleasant.

As a side note, it is surprising to see a plot point that lays blame on local clergymen for the catastrophe that befalls this British kingdom when the giants are unleashed. In a brief origin story that precedes the film’s main action, a cloister of monks uses magic beans to grow an impossibly tall stalk to climb to heaven and see God. Instead, it leads to a lair of giants in the clouds, allowing the monsters to climb down and wreak havoc. Generations pass and that tale gradually falls into legend.

As “Jack the Giant Slayer” begins in earnest, a monk passes the beans to young Jack and eventually another stalk grows, allowing those rampaging giants to once again descend on the kingdom. A curious moment late in the film has a few monks gathered in prayer at the foot of the stalk when a giant falls out of the sky and apparently crushes them. The camera cuts away too quickly to tell for sure, but the monks are never seen again, and the focus shifts from onlookers to the dead giant on the ground. (A form of retribution, perhaps, for the sins of the monks who started it all?)

Box-office returns for “Hansel and Gretel” and “Jack” have been disappointing, but “Oz the Great and Powerful” was a huge hit last weekend, which, of course, means a sequel is on the way, although it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this prospective franchise will begin to adhere to the original book series by L. Frank Baum (14 volumes, followed by many later sequels from different authors).

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