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Lord of the Beans
March 7, 2013 - Rick Chatenever
Amid other casualties of modern technology, we can now add fairy tales to the list.
Perhaps the problem is that no one knows what a beanstalk is anymore - much less, a giant beanstalk.
Then again, the horrendous consequences of trading the family cow for a handful of useless beans is beyond the grasp of today's kids, most of whose knowledge of farm animals or legumes comes from plastic pictures on supermarket shelf packaging.
Whatever the reason, "Jack and the Beanstalk," an English folk tale dating from the early 1800s about an absent-minded but resourceful lad who outwits a dim-witted giant, has become "Jack the Giant Slayer," Hollywood's special-effects epic of the week, more reminiscent of "Lord of the Rings" than any fairy tale I remember from my childhood.
It was tops at the box office this week, with ticket sales approaching $30 million. That's enough to buy a lot of beans, but it still makes "Jack" the first bomb of 2013, according to movie industry analysts, noting its $200 million price tag.
On nostalgic subjects like fairy tales, I worry about sounding creaky, like a comfortable but well-used rocking chair. The chorus of cranky boomers is growing. We're not longing for the good old days so much as just wondering how they got stolen and replaced with all these slick knock-offs.
A two-hundred-million-dollar fairy tale? I do declare!
Once upon a time, long before fairy tales could be Googled, chances are that they lived in a big book with a fraying cloth cover that was read to you at bedtime.
The book's spine was cracked, maybe the pages had golden edges and had an exciting little rustle when they were turned. Some of the pages held magical illustrations of princesses and knights, ethereal spirits or perhaps animals that had gone to the dark side.
For a young child, the stories lived in the books, springing into action when the cover was flipped open.
Even, or especially, if you couldn't read, you were still the one connecting the dots of the story with your imagination.
In "Jack the Giant Slayer," the slumbering Giant has been replaced with an army of them, as huge and menacing as computers can make them. Eons ago, they were banished by noble King Eric and exiled to a floating island in the sky.
Now the humans on ye olde earth are safe enough to go about their courtly ways, at least until one of them - it's Jack, actually - accidentally plants a magic bean in the ground. Whoa, before you can say Miracle-Gro, there's this huge beanstalk bursting through the floor and heading up into the clouds, where the you-know-whats live.
For the film version, Jack has come of age.
He's played by Nicholos Hoult, last seen in the zombie romance, "Warm Bodies." Hoult is a likable, bumbling sort of hero, despite his fondness for films that consider humans members of the food chain.
The cow has been replaced by a horse in the film, the better to make daring escapes. And now there's a lovely princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) to be rescued. The co-stars in shining armor include Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci. Action veteran Bryan Singer directs, with enough storm-the-castle battle scenes to make you wonder if you've wandered into "The Hobbit" by accident.
The young teen matinee audience I watched the film with actually applauded at the end. Jack and his princess had managed to sneak in a little old-fashioned magic between the fireballs and noisy action.
But there's still something troubling about letting the special effects department take over the heavy lifting we used to do with our imaginations. Fairy tale magic is woven of strong but almost invisible stuff, like a spider web. It's one of those things that, once lost, is almost impossible to find again.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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