This time…it's no fairy tale.
The folks who brought you the Muppets (not those actual folks, because Jim Henson died a dozen years ago and Frank Oz has moved on to directing such films as The Score, but those who are carrying on the franchise) present this made-for-TV backspin on the classic legend of the boy who climbed a magic beanstalk into a world of giants and geese that lay golden eggs. The twist here is that the beanstalk story is no legend, but an actual historical event whose details have been muddied and perverted over the past four centuries. A modern-day business executive (Matthew Modine, on a different sort of Vision Quest) finds his destiny intertwined, so to speak, with the original beanstalk-climber's, and sets forth on a mission to right a great wrong, set the record straight, and make time with Ferris Bueller's girlfriend.
Facts of the Case
Jonathan "Jack" Robinson (Modine) is the CEO of a multinational conglomerate founded by his family. In the midst of all his wheeling and dealing, Jack remains ever conscious of "the Robinson curse": none of the men in the last ten generations of the line have survived long past age 40. At 37, Jack's rapidly approaching critical mass, a fact not lost on his board of directors, who keep ordering physicals to make sure the boss isn't on the brink of expiration.
Robinson International's latest project is a grand-scale Camelot-themed casino being erected on the grounds of a restored castle on the English countryside (obviously, Jack's never ventured to Vegas, because someone's already been there and done that). When workmen unearth a mammoth skeleton (mammoth like the adjective, not like the animal) on the castle property, Jack is intrigued, though his shirt-tail relation and overseas operations chief Siegfried (Jon Voight, gnawing scenery like an illusionist in search of Roy, and mangling a Eurotrash accent that sounds like his jungle guide in Anaconda by way of Bronson Pinchot) wants him to focus on the windfall to be reaped when the casino is completed. But when a long-lost aunt (Vanessa Redgrave of The Pledge and Girl, Interrupted, pocketing a paycheck) reappears, not having aged a day in the 30 years since Jack last saw her, she tells him an incredible tale: his ancestor was Jack of beanstalk fame; the fairy tale is more than a tale; and somehow Jack himself holds the key to unlocking the Robinson curse and restoring the possibility of a normal lifespan to himself and his male progeny. The simultaneous arrival of a mysterious woman named Ondine (Mia Sara, Legend, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) who accuses Jack of thievery and murder seals the deal, and Jack jets off to merrie olde England to ferret out the dusty secrets of his family's past.
Gradually the modern-day Robinson comes to accept the realization that the seedpod of his family's monumental fortune came down the beanstalk with his long-ago forebear, at the cost of a giant's life. Quicker than you can say "Jack Robinson" (you knew that was coming eventually, didn't you?), our man Jack is making his own skyward foray up an ensorcelled vine into Giantland, now desolate and forbidding since the robbery of the magic talismans—the harp and the golden goose—that generated its lifeforce. Ondine turns out to be an 11,000-year-old agent of the Giant Council, which is headed by Magog (Sir Richard Attenborough, slumming) and Thespee (Daryl Hannah of Splash in a ghastly makeup job that makes her look like a hypothermic drag queen). To save his own neck—literally—from the executioner's sword, and to make amends for his ancestor's crimes, Jack must restore the order of things by retrieving the goose and harp.
Originally presented as a two-part Hallmark television miniseries, Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story clocks in at just over three hours sans commercials. To accommodate the miniseries format, the story is padded and fluffed with far more exposition than necessary—the same ground could easily have been covered in two hours without anyone missing any of the edited material. Given its length, though, the film is surprisingly well paced and held even this Judge's attenuated attention just fine. The script is clever without being too clever, despite some ponderous dialogue, and enough twists and turns keep happening to move things along.
The real question is, who's the intended audience for this show? It's too dark and dense for kids, and most adults wouldn't make it past the title ("Three hours about 'Jack and the Beanstalk'? Hand me that remote"). All of which is too bad, because as bizarre as the concept sounds at first blush, the Henson folks have managed to make a pretty entertaining film out of it. The story is intriguing, and it mostly hangs together despite several logical canyons Evel Knievel couldn't leap across. The actors, with the exception of the fey and constantly mugging Voight (note to casting directors: stop hiring Jon Voight to play characters with accents), play the tale with aplomb and absolute seriousness, even if some of the casting selections are a tad off: Matthew Modine is great at conveying Jack's sense of puzzlement and wonder at his increasingly peculiar predicament, but comes off as too boyish and naïve early on when we're supposed to buy his character as a ruthless captain of industry; Mia Sara, as fascinatingly lovely as she was fifteen years ago when her star first ascended, has still only two basic expressions—goggle-eyed intensity (which doubles at appropriate moments for goggle-eyed horror) and goggle-eyed cuteness. Yet, both Modine and Sara are likeable and earnest, and we not only care about them but also are eager to see how their relationship will evolve. Cult fanatics will get a kick out of glimpsing one-time Avengers co-star and Bond girl Honor Blackman in a small role as Jack's gal Friday.
Jim Henson's Creature Shop excels, of course, at puppetry creations, but there's a limited use of that form of technical artistry here. (Anyone seeing the Henson name and expecting something on the order of The Dark Crystal will be in for a rude awakening.) Instead, the Creature Shop has focused on expanding the range of its computer-generated animation and effects skills. The results are better than you'd expect from the Muppet people—we're not talking Industrial Light and Magic here, but it ain't Sid and Marty Krofft either. You can pretty much see the effects as effects, especially the matte work—which isn't convincing anywhere in the film—but in this setting that's okay: it's still a fairy tale, after all, and it's all right for it to look like one. A lot of thought clearly went into creating a realistic meld between the concrete world of Jack Robinson and the fanciful land of giants and magic, and in the main it's effective.
On DVD, Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story appears in an attractive anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1. I say "approximately" because the keep case claims the presentation is 1.33:1 full frame, which it demonstrably isn't, and I've found references in online sources to the ratio being closer to 1.78:1. Whatever it is (and I'm reasonably sure it's 1.85:1), what it isn't is pan-and-scan, which is good news for the viewer. (I'm certain that when the miniseries ran on network TV, a cropped-and-chopped version was shown.) The print is decent but grainy and very, very soft throughout, the latter of which again works in the context of this material but makes it tough to decipher anything in the deep background of the frame. Some pixelation and color breakup occurs in spots, but never at a distracting level. And for a made-for-TV feature, the color palette is consistently natural and not overdone. Overall, this film is pleasant to the eye.
Audio is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 surround, though the 2.0 is the default setting. The 5.1 mix is, like the video, pretty decent for a TV show: not terribly aggressive or active but well balanced, and with a rock-solid bottom end when extra bass is called for (as when the giants speak).
We're treated to the diet plate of supplemental offerings on this disc. There's an eight-minute featurette entitled "A Look Behind the Scenes" that mostly features director Brian Henson discussing the making of the film, with interview clips also from Matthew Modine and Mia Sara, along with the backstage footage. A second featurette focuses on the effects wizards at Jim Henson's Creature Shop. This one runs seven minutes and contains interview clips from most of the main technical artists involved in the project. My only complaints with either documentary is that they're both briefer than I would have liked, and neither is especially well organized. A third addition is a 32-screen set of production notes, most of which are dedicated to the technical aspects of the film's creation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Has Jon Voight been taking refresher courses at the Christopher Walken School of Self-Parody? Or did he think that because Brian Henson was directing, the Muppets were going to pop up eventually? Whichever is the case, his embarrassing dialect and campy approach to his character distract from every scene in this film in which he appears.
And another question: if Jack Robinson's heritage is English, why do all his living relatives have Teutonic names and (more or less) accents?
All in all, an entertaining and different take on a familiar story, and one suitable for—if not necessarily appealing to—a broad range of ages. Fans of fairy-tale fantasy, especially with a dark edge, won't be disappointed. Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story would make a diverting rental on a long holiday weekend or any other time when the family has three hours to kill together. Collectors of the genre and/or of the Henson family oeuvre may want own this if they can pick it up cheap.
Jack and his beanstalk are free to go. Artisan is fined five magic beans for not knowing in what aspect ratio their film is presented. Jon Voight is sentenced to five consecutive viewings of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves so he, too, can feel violated by shoddy accent implementation. Court is adjourned.
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• Featurette: "A Look Behind the Scenes" with Director Brian Henson
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