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Jack And The Beanstalk: The Real Story (2001)
Director: Brian Henson

review by Donald Morefield

The highlight of Britain's terrestrial TV viewing for Christmas 2003 was this wonderful updating of the fairy tale, offering an agreeably postmodernist and contemporised adaptation of the traditional story, while retaining all its best-loved elements. It opens in present day England, with the discovery of a gigantic humanoid skeleton (thought to be a dinosaur, at first) buried at the construction-digging site of a planned casino. The builders' boss unwillingly alerts the American corporate CEO Jack Robinson (Matthew Modine), a billionaire bachelor plagued by nightmares about a family curse suggesting he will die at age 40. What the troubled Jack doesn't know yet is that his right-hand man, company manager Siggy (Jon Voight, with a smirk and a funny pantomime accent), is privy to the Robinsons' darkest secrets - including a cruel betrayal, the theft of a unique fowl, and a cold-bloodied axe murder...
   Yes, it's the one about a desperate farmer's cow traded for a handful of beans, the magic goose that lays golden eggs, and the (supposedly) greedy giant who can "smell the blood of an Englishman." Here, though, the theft of the talking goose (and an animated harp) brings drought, poverty, and depression to the world above the clouds. While visiting the location of his stalled casino project, Jack finds himself being stalked by the mysterious Ondine (elfin yet intense Mia Sara, veteran of Ridley Scott's Legend, 1985) who turns out to be a messenger and guide from the fantastic realm in the sky. She knows more about Jack's ancestral lineage and relatives than he does, and she tricks him into accompanying her up the lofty tower of a newly grown, giant beanstalk, to face trial in the magic land where time passes more slowly than it does on Earth.
   As you'd expect, this glossy miniseries is a determinedly commercial project with the trappings of big star names in supporting roles - including Vanessa Redgrave playing Jack's aunt (actually a 400-year-old countess!), Daryl Hannah as the blue-skinned giantess Thespee, Richard Attenborough as Magog, ruler of the giant deities, plus some excellent CG visual effects realising the beanstalk and digital compositing for the creatures, landscapes and giants. It all moves along briskly enough, without surplus footage or story padding, and cleverly replays the essentials from different perspectives, showing both the giant and the original Jack in a differing light, both good and bad. The truth behind the fairy tale is revealed as morally complex, even as it advocates simplified answers to both the rural blight affecting the giants' fantasy world, and the problems of Jack's impending mortality and distinct lack of romance in his life.
   The happy ending is not quite as contrived or generically obvious as you may immediately suspect. And so, despite a few concessions to younger viewers (the storyline never dwells on its monsters, and the violent scenes are only implied), this is a charming and wholly affectionate recounting of the popular classic. Those who missed the TV airing might like to know it's now available on DVD.
Jack and the Beanstalk

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