Jack and the Beanstalk (1997)


UK. 1997.


Director/Producer – Martin Gates, Screenplay – Martin Gates & Sue Radley, Music Conductor – Doug Walter, Songs – Chris Caswell, Animation Director/Art Director – Athol Henry. Production Company – Martin Gates Productions/Carrington Productions International


Ben Savage (Jack), Sara Gilbert (Dilly), Melvyn Hayes (Ambrose), Tone-Loc (The Giant), Tim Healy (Reg), Julia McKenzie (Mavis), Alison Steadman (Veronica/Jack’s Mother), Maria Darling (Harriet), Peter Bayliss (The Auctioneer), Colin Marsh (Troll King/Auctioneer’s Assistant), Peter Straker (Second Troll King), Paul Panting (Jack Singing Voice), Imelda Staunton (Dilly Singing Voice), Gary Martin (Dark Riders)


Jack and his mother are about to be thrown out of their cottage by the greedy landlord because of unpaid rent. Jack reluctantly agrees to take their cow to town to sell it. However, he is swindled by the auctioneer who swaps the bag of silver pieces he gives Jack for a bag of worthless bolts and beans. Jack’s mother angrily throws the bag into the garden. In the morning, Jack is startled to find that the beans have grown into a giant beanstalk that reaches up into the clouds. He climbs the beanstalk and finds himself in another land. He is inadvertently regarded as a hero by the villagers who live there when he helps put out a fire that has been started by the rampage of the Dark Riders. Joined by a young girl Dilly, who is seeking to get back her singing harp, and Ambrose, a talking donkey, Jack sets out to confront the giant who, along with the Dark Riders, holds Beanland in terror.

This is an adaptation of the classic fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk (1807) from British animator Martin Gates. Martin Gates has made several other similar modest animated efforts, including the tv series’ The Dream Stone (1989) and Molly’s Gang (1994) and films such as Mole’s Christmas (1994), The Snow Queen (1995), The Adventures of Mole (1995) and The Snow Queen’s Revenge (1996).

Around the same time as Jack and the Beanstalk, Martin Gates also made a modestly likeable version of The Ugly Duckling (1997). In both of these fairytale adaptations, Gates and co-writer Sue Radley expand the familiar tale out and essentially build another entire story around it. This is most noticeable here when it comes to the character of Jack. Traditionally Jack is played as a dimwit who trades the only cow he and his mother have for what someone tells him is magic beans. In the film, Gates and Radley cast Jack as an ordinary kid who gets swindled out of the donkey by a crooked auctioneer and his assistant who give him a bag of beans that Jack thinks is full of coins. Much wider changes come when the film gets up into the giant’s cloud kingdom. There Martin Gates and Sue Radley embellish the traditional story considerably, peopling the cloud realm with numerous villagers and creatures, as well as giving Jack two companions – a young girl and, in a prefigural of Shrek (2001), a talking donkey companion.

There are certainly some peculiar creatures around the side of the film – most appealing is a couple of Cockney-accented vultures, not to mention a golden egg-laying goose who claims to really be “a free-range hen” and a singing harp that professes she is “very highly strung”. The Dark Riders that threaten the realm are a blatant theft from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-6).

On the minus side, the story is very picaresque. Some sequences such as the venture into troll labyrinth and much of the film’s descent into inane slapstick could have been axed. The film is also notable in its dramatically contorted appeal to non-violence – Jack dispatches a troll teetering on the edge of a precipice by going “boo”, while the giant is finally disposed of not by confrontation or combat but by a lightning bolt striking a fork it is holding and causing its castle to collapse around it.

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