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“When you mounted that beanstalk, you started to climb that ladder to fortune!”
– The Mysterious Old Man, reminding us that opportunities are worth the arduous climb
What’s in a name? Would that which we would call a Jack by any other name be as wily, cunning, adventurous or tricky? Perhaps, but then he wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as those who share the namesake. Funny how you find a lot of Jacks in fairy tales and nursery rhymes, isn’t it? There’s Jack Sprat, Jack Horner, Jack Be Nimble, Jack O’Lantern, and of course, Jack The Giant Killer, a distant cousin of today’s story. Thanks to the multitude of English and Appalachian tales featuring a hero with that sobriquet, naming a character Jack has become shorthand for a clever, agile, and often charming personality, a tradition in fiction which continues to this day (Jack Sparrow, Reacher, and Skellington, anyone?) Of course, it’s only natural that someone with a larger-than-life persona would have an enemy in someone who is, quite literally, larger than life.
Myths of giants and giant killers have rocked the folkloric landscape since the days of Greek and Norse mythology. The story of Jack and the Beanstalk, however, grew almost entirely out of England. Scholars have found its roots go as far back as 4500 BC, with some signs that it may have originated in early Iran. Inspired by the aforementioned Jack The Giant Killer and passed down through years of oral tradition, the story as we first know it appeared in English publications in 1734 as “The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean” (I can see why the title got whittled down). It was later popularized in 1845 by Henry Cole, the man who invented greeting cards, and again by Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs in 1890. Jacobs’ version is the one that stuck around the longest, and is the take on Jack’s adventures that we’re all familiar with, for better or worse.
See, while all those qualities I mentioned earlier can be noble in some Jacks, they can be villainous in others, like Spring-Heeled Jack and Jack The Ripper – and even in the case of this particular Jack. Back in the salad days of Jack and the Beanstalk’s popularity, no one really questioned the morality of Jack’s actions. I suppose just being a giant (and an implied man-eating one at that) were wicked enough traits to make him the designated antagonist. When the Victorian period dictated that all children’s stories should teach morals in as hamfisted a manner as possible, Andrew Lang and Benjamin Tabart rewrote Jack and the Beanstalk so that Jack has a tragic backstory that gives him the moral high ground and makes the Giant more monstrous from the reader’s perspective. While the idea does have merit, I’m left wondering if two wrongs really do make a right. Does stealing from someone and eventually murdering them negate your culpability if the victim committed those same crimes against you first? What if your retribution left behind a widow with no one to support her? Does that still make you a hero, or leave you in the need of some good PR? I suppose that’s why I lean towards versions where Jack realizes his greed is making him as much a monster as the giant, or where the consequences of his actions catch up to him and he must take responsibility in order to set things right (hi, Into The Woods). I definitely don’t expect Faerie Tale Theatre’s to delve into such a moral gray area, but how do they handle making this Jack a hero worth rooting for?
Our opening credits roll over a little model village and farm that give me Mr. Rogers’ puppet town vibes. Not a bad start. But oh my goodness, when we get to the interior of Jack and his mother’s cottage…
It’s not easy to tell with just a still, but rather than build a simple cottage interior, they simply filmed the actors on a green screen with a few props and keyed them into a little model house. The same goes for the outdoor scenes on the farm as well. That’s an awful lot of work put into showing off how remarkably cheap this episode is. It’s the one major hangup I have with this episode. It’s not enough that it comes right after the detailed opulence of Sleeping Beauty, but compared to every episode prior thus far it pales in terms of visual quality. I’m especially confused why this was the outing that got the shaft budget-wise when the story calls for plenty of complicated special effects.
Our hero, Jack, is a dreamer who keeps trying to apply his fantastic if slightly impractical ideas to his chores to help his mother. But the harder they work, the poorer and hungrier they get. Jack’s spirited enthusiasm doesn’t let their impoverished state get him down. His mother, on the other hand, is growing increasingly frustrated with how things are spiraling out of her control. She also breaks down in tears remembering how different things were when Jack’s father was around, but can’t articulate exactly what was different or even remember what happened to him, so clearly she’s dealing with some repressed trauma too. Seeing his mother in such a tizzy only further motivates Jack’s ambitions. More than anything, he wants to be the kind of brave, noble, intrepid man his mother says that his father was.
The next day, Jack takes the family cow Spot out of the barn in the hopes that a change of scenery will inspire her to finally give him some milk after three days of dryness. And oh boy, let’s see that cow.
Unfortunately for Jack, Spot’s dry streak continues. Mother insists on selling her despite Jack’s insistence that she’s a part of the family. When he can’t think of any other solutions for their money woes, he reluctantly takes Spot to town himself. This involves him and Spot “walking” against a model landscape which doesn’t even line up. The background keeps moving at the same speed even as Jack and Spot pause and lag along.
As Jack wanders down the road pondering other options to save his friend, a little old man suddenly pops up before them.
The sprightly Old Man, who appears to already know Jack’s name, says he’s in need of a cow and offers five seemingly-ordinary beans in exchange for Spot. “Looks can be deceiving,” he whispers, and goes on to explain that they’re really magic beans. Despite his curiosity, Jack is skeptic. It’s not until the Old Man promises to return Spot if the beans don’t work that Jack seals the deal. Of course, his mother is furious that his gullibility has screwed them out of their only source of income and food. She throws the beans out and sends him to bed without supper.
Jack is later awoken by what he thinks are the growls of his stomach, but then spies a gigantic beanstalk growing outside his window. He spends the whole night climbing up it to see where it goes. By morning he reaches a land up in the clouds, and meets a mysterious woman whom I can best describe as Rue McClanahan by way of Mrs. Doubtfire. The woman points him towards a castle, warning him that it belongs to a cruel giant who torments and steals from the people of this enchanted kingdom.
Jack goes to the castle in search of some food and meets the Giant’s Wife. She urges him to leave because her husband likes to snack on little boys, but her sympathy gets the best of her and oh my god an actual set!
There’s some very good use of perspective to make the giants seem bigger than they are, and unlike the previous scenes, Jack blends in well here. There are times I’m not entirely sure if he’s chroma-keyed in or if the people behind the effects knew how to get him in the same shot but play with the camera angles so he maintains the right height. Either way, kudos to them for taking things up a notch after the past twenty minutes.
Jack lends the Giantess a hand with her chores until the Giant returns home from work and he’s forced into hiding. The Giant himself is kind of too dumb and goofy to be taken as a serious threat. He’s like an overgrown child with a bit of a violent streak. The Giantess dotes on him, but it’s obvious that constantly caring for this mindless immature lout on top of her many household duties is making her miserable.
Counting gold soon becomes a mental strain for the Giant and he falls asleep. Jack takes the opportunity to steal the coins and scurry home. The Giant goes into a rage when he discovers he’s been robbed, but his wife covers for Jack by suggesting he swallowed the gold in his sleep. My reasoning is that she’d rather play ignorant than have her husband figure out she let a thief in the house.
Jack and his mother are able to buy themselves a better life with the Giant’s coins. But money doesn’t last forever, and soon they’re down to their last coin. None of Jack’s ideas are enough to ensure there’ll be bread on the table either.
So Jack has no choice but to sneak back up the beanstalk against his mother’s wishes (and this time, while actually clothed). The mysterious woman greets him again at the top. After insinuating that the Giant’s other treasures really belong to Jack, she gives him a disguise so he won’t be recognized.
Jack deceives the Giant’s Wife, and she lets him in after he promises help with the housecleaning. He hides when the Giant returns as per scheduled. In contrast to his previous scene, the Giant is rather depressed, having somehow come to an offscreen realization that death is permanent and comes for everyone, and wonders what place an ogre like him has in the grand scheme of a vast, uncaring universe.
The Giantess distracts her husband from his existential crisis by bringing out his favorite pet, a hen that lays golden eggs.
Once the Giant is asleep, Jack kidnaps the hen. Now his family’s financial future is secured. But it’s not enough up for Jack. He feels compelled to go up the beanstalk one more time, though he doesn’t quite know why. During the trip he encounters the old lady again. She tells him of a kind and brave knight who once lived in the castle the Giant now calls home. He was beloved by everyone in the kingdom of the clouds for his generosity. Of course, the jealous Giant killed the knight and stole everything he owned. Only his wife escaped the massacre with their infant son – Jack.
So now Jack has a valid excuse for stealing from the Giant; technically it’s not theft if the objects taken belong to you by all rights, is it? Moreover he finally understands his strange connection to the cloud kingdom and what drew him up the beanstalk: vengeance.
Jack disguises himself as a humble
Scottish Swedish boy who only wants to help the Giantess with the housework. She hides him in the oven when the Giant comes home. The whole “fee fi fo fun” routine happens as it did before, ending with the Giantess leaving her husband to play with his magic harp. Now many versions of the story depict the harp as having a beautiful living figurehead of a woman whose song lulls the Giant to sleep. As per Faerie Tale Theatre norm, this harp opts for something familiar yet different, albeit in the weirdest way possible.
I can’t call it a bad choice, just a very strange one. It makes the harp look possessed or haunted by a trapped spirit rather than an instrument who’s magically anthropomorphized.
Jack snatches the harp but the Giant wakes up and gives chase. Jack makes it down the beanstalk first and and hacks at it with an axe as the Giant descends. The Giant tumbles to his doom, not because the beanstalk itself is cut down, but because he just loses his grip and falls first. Meanwhile, seeing the harp unlocks Jack’s mother’s memories and she finally remembers everything about her husband.
The Old Man shows up, and Jack realizes he was the old woman in disguise. The Man explains that Jack proved himself a noble, enterprising man worthy of his father’s legacy by venturing up the beanstalk when others would have second-guessed themselves. He further rewards Jack by reuniting him with Spot. Jack, his mother, the hen and Spot go live in the castle…somehow (the beanstalk disintegrates after the Giant falls so I guess the Mysterious Man had more magic beans handy), and the giant’s wife is allowed to stay on and help around the place because of the kindness she showed him. And they all presumably live happily ever after.
Faerie Tale Theatre’s Jack and the Beanstalk isn’t the series’ strongest outing, and yet the ardent performances give it no small amount of charm. It moves along at a decent pace, utilizing the “moralized” version of the tale to tell a more compelling story, build up the mystery surrounding Jack’s past and give him a decent character arc. There’s a good sense of humor throughout, and for all my gripes over its lack of budget showing, I give it credit for how it plays with the perspective in the castle scenes. While the previous episode plays out like a recording of a professional stage production, this one has the feel of an old-school pantomime and all it entails. If you like your fairy tales with that extra helping of cheese, this one will hit the spot.
- The Giant’s abode is decorated with some goofy-looking mounted heads that apparently he stuffed himself.
- The best dialogue exchange in the episode comes during Jack’s third visit when he must hide in the oven: he balks “You know this is not Hansel and Gretel, don’t you?” and the Giant’s Wife responds “I’m an ogress, not a witch!” I love it when fairytales have a modicum of self-awareness without falling into self-parody.
- Interesting to note that each time Jack works his way into the castle he gets better at helping the Giant’s Wife with her daily chores. By his third visit, he’s doing all the work himself while she puts her feet up. Considering how his mother lamented his lack of practicality in helping with housework at the start, I’m sure she would have been proud.
- The Giantess comes up with some crazy recipes to satisfy her husband’s massive appetite. The fan-favorite in the Youtube comments seem to be “potato poopies” for less than mature reasons…heh heh, poopie.
Hey, Was That…: Dennis Christopher plays Jack. Katherine Helmond of Everybody Loves Raymond is Jack’s Mother. Elliot Gould is the Giant. Edith Bunker herself, Jean Stapleton, plays the Giant’s Wife. Jerry Hall returns as the Lady of the Harp. Mark Blankfield narrates and plays the Old Man. Billy Bryan, special effects artist who portrayed the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the original Ghostbusters, puppeteers the Hen. Lamont Johnson, who directed this episode in addition to several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone, also voices Spot The Cow.
Who’s The Artist?: There…doesn’t seem to be a specific artist inspiring this one. That also might count for why the production value is pretty lackluster. It feels weird not getting to flex my illustrator cred this month.
Better Or Worse Than…?: This is not the best Jack and the Beanstalk I’ve seen, but it’s definitely not the worst – that dishonor would go to the version directed by Barry Mahon that’s spliced into certain prints of Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny (but at least the Rifftrax guys know how to make it entertaining). If you’d like to see a higher quality take on the story in half the runtime, I recommend the one by Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child (which has the likes of Harry Belafonte and Tone Loc in the cast), or Mickey and the Beanstalk, either the VonDrake edit or the original that’s a part of Fun And Fancy Free (This blog is Team VonDrake, but still shows Team Bergen the respect it’s owed due to his place in Muppet history). Speaking of Muppets, there’s a television film produced by the Jim Henson Company and Hallmark called Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story that reinvents the original story and holds Jack’s modern-day descendant to task for his ancestor’s sins. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my to-do list. It seems like it’s a great metaphor for the effects of colonialism, something which Disney’s unfortunately shelved animated retelling, Gigantic, appeared to be heading towards. Here’s hoping that one will see the light of day in the future.
Oh and there’s the feature-length anime Jack and the Beanstalk which is…fucking insane, but worth a watch if you like a good mindscrew.
Ranking: Jack and the Beanstalk is far from the most polished production in the series, but it’s got heart where it counts. This isn’t among my favorite episodes, yet I won’t turn my nose up at either. It gets the new 4th Place spot between The Nightingale and Rumplestilstkin.
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre Reviews, have you ever wanted to see Alex DeLarge as a furry? Too bad, he’s coming in Little Red Riding Hood.
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Now usually this is where I say Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th and movie reviews go up on the 20th; however, due to my illustration workload piling up in addition to preparing for my next writers’ conference, I unfortunately have to put the movie reviews on hold for a bit. It takes more time for me to put my thoughts together for them compared to the FTT reviews and I want to ensure you get what you came here for in the best quality I can provide. Trust me, this was not an easy decision, especially since the schedule I set for myself was already thrown off since September. The Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are still going ahead as planned every month, and my patrons will get early peeks at those as well as the film reviews as they’re being written, I can guarantee that.
Also, fuck NFTs.