Dec 2 - 4, 2001
What if the fairy tale were true?
And what if it were four hours long? And what if it starred Matthew Modine and Vanessa Redgrave? What would you do then, huh, smart guy? Betcha never thought of that one.
What are you talking about? What's going on?
Jim Henson's Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story is the amazing story of a really pretty guy who doesn't know anything. He's really cute and rich and everybody seems to like him a whole bunch, but he's pretty clueless, and nobody ever tells him what's going on. There. That's Hour One.
Seriously. That's about it.
Well, one thing is that there's giant bones in the ground underneath this big house that Jack owns, only it's in England and he's American for some reason. More on that later. The mansion is in a little English village, and Jack's company is digging up what is essentially the mansion's front yard so they can build a big casino.
Anyway, there's giant bones. We find out about them in Minute One, during the opening credits. Jack finds out about them in Minute Thirty-Nine.
In the intervening thirty-eight minutes, basically Jack just wanders around looking lost, asking vague questions that nobody answers. Jack is surrounded by quippy character actors, each with a different accent. Some have German accents. Some have English accents. One has a Texas drawl; one has a Midwestern twang. One has a French accent, but when Jack asks her about it, she says it isn't a French accent. Everybody gets an accent except for Jack. Apparently, Jack was raised in England by German people, so he grew up speaking Hollywood.
The plot basically goes like this. Vanessa Redgrave sits in a chair. Jack's company digs up some bones. Jack has a dream about his father's death. He wakes up and goes to a board meeting. He asks why the casino construction has stopped, but nobody tells him anything. He tries to have a business meeting, but he's interrupted by a weird-eyed waif who stares at him in an unsettling way. He asks her what her problem is, but she doesn't tell him anything. Vanessa Redgrave is still sitting in a chair. Jack sits around in his apartment and sulks, then gets a fax. He still doesn't know what's going on, so he flies to England.
Jack tries to drive to the mansion, but there's a big protest there so he drives away. He goes to the village pub, where he meets the weird waif girl again. She makes a lot of vague accusations, and it takes a whole five minute scene before she finally realizes that he doesn't know what she's talking about. Then she disappears. Thirty-seven minutes in, Jack is still walking around asking questions like, What are you talking about? and What did they dig up? and What's going on?
Finally, they show Jack the big giant skeleton that we've known about the whole dang time. And then he has the dream about his father's death again, and Vanessa Redgrave is STILL sitting in that chair.
Fifty-one minutes into the show, Jack goes to see Vanessa, who's supposed to explain everything. Vanessa says, "There are forces at play here that I do not fully understand." And Jack says, "Forces at play?" And that pretty much wraps up the first hour.
Everyone falls asleep
I know what you're saying at this point. How many times can he say that nothing happens on this show? Well, it all depends on how long the show can go on with nothing happening. And how long can that keep up?
Let's find out. Hour Two.
Previously on Jack and the Beanstalk: Jack is pretty, Vanessa is old. Ondine is a little French supermodel with big eyes who keeps telling Jack that his family committed crimes. Jack finds Vanessa and she finally starts telling him what's going on.
Basically, the deal is as follows. Remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? Well, it really happened.
And if they'd told us that an hour and a half ago, we wouldn't have had to go through all of this. Oh wait! They DID tell us that an hour and a half ago! Seriously, Vanessa tells Jack the fairy tale pretty much exactly as you remember it. Jack and his mom don't have any money, they're poor, there's a cow, he sells the cow for beans. Mom throws the beans, and Jack goes to sleep. The beanstalk. The climbing. The castle. The giant. It's all there.
"I know the story," says Jack -- the pretty Matthew Modine Jack, not the other one. "It's a fairy tale." Vanessa gets impatient: "It's NOT a fairy tale. It really HAPPENED." Okay! Fine! I think we got that part! We've been hearing all about it for hours now! It was in the commercial and everything!
I'm sorry. Am I being too harsh on Vanessa? I like Vanessa. I think she's swell, if a bit overwrought about everything. But at least I'm not falling asleep, unlike the Giant. The Giant is, well, a big ugly giant. He isn't much to look at, and he isn't much with the dialogue, either. He says "Baaaa" before he bites the head off a sheep. Then he barks at the golden harp and the goose: "PLAY! LAY! PLAY! LAY!" They play, they lay. He falls asleep. I have never been so envious of a big ugly giant before. At least he gets some rest in the middle of all this.
Back to the pretty Jack: "I really am trying to accept all this, but..."
Vanessa leans forward. "Yes?"
"... But you're asking me to accept a FAIRY TALE!"
YES, Jack! YES! Have you not been paying attention? YES! It's a fairy tale! It's a fairy tale and it REALLY HAPPENED!
I mean, for goodness sake. PLAY! LAY! Do SOMETHING! Just stop TALKING it to death!
Phew. Okay. Then Jack goes back to his house and looks at the giant skeleton again. He says to the skeleton, "Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you get here?" I have never come so close to beating Matthew Modine to death before. Then the waify supermodel girl appears. Turns out she's from the Beanstalk kingdom! She has a magic electrical crystal thing that she uses to travel back up to the Beanstalk kingdom, and leaves Jack behind. Once again I am filled with envy.
So Jack takes the necklace that he got from Vanessa, and he breaks it open, and he finds a seed. He plants the seed and then -- I swear to you this happens -- and then he falls asleep. No fewer than three main characters have fallen asleep on screen in the last hour. I think they're trying to tell us something.
Jack wakes up in time to see the big Beanstalk. He climbs it and gets to this big electric hole in the sky. He touches it. It's electric. He touches it again. Still electric. He touches it again. Seasons pass. Civilizations rise and fall. And god damn it if it doesn't say To Be Continued before he gets anywhere.
Let's slow down a minute.
Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that I haven't really liked Jack and the Beanstalk so far. My main issue is this: We're two hours in, and Jack hasn't actually done anything so far.
Everybody keeps telling Jack how special he is, and Vanessa says that "only the right Jack" can end the family curse. But what makes this Jack the right Jack, besides being a pretty movie star? He basically just mopes around until Ondine shows up and tells him he's a murderer. He doesn't really care about other people -- the villagers around the castle are protesting the new casino, but Jack doesn't bother finding out why. It seems like he sees them more as an obstacle that he has to get around rather than real people with real concerns. And then magical people show up and tell him about his destiny, and he sort of follows whatever they say. At the end of the second hour, when he plants the seed and climbs the Beanstalk, he's pushed into it by flashback voice-overs of Vanessa and Ondine telling him that he has to. He's amazingly passive; magical stuff happens around him, and he just reacts.
And, worst of all, Jack doesn't seem to be the brightest bean on the vine. At the beginning of Hour Three, he climbs up the Beanstalk and immediately starts saying the most incredibly stupid things. I'll give you some examples.
"Ondine! I thought you were gone. But you're here!"
"Geez, I thought you were a goner, after that... exploding thing."
"Why am I tied up? Ondine! Am I a prisoner or something?"
Apparently the air is thinner up there.
Anyway, Jack is taken to a big hall and put on trial. He just sort of marches along and looks petulant while everybody tells him to keep quiet. Ondine tells the council of giants the true story of the fairy tale: Thunderdell was really nice, and Jack took advantage of his generosity, stole the goose and harp, and murdered Thunderdell. This part actually could be pretty interesting if it wasn't taking so darn long.
And -- big surprise! -- the giants say that Jack is guilty, and they sentence him to death. This is his heartfelt response: "Death? You can't just kill me." Ah, but they can. They say he's guilty again. He offers to go back to his world and bring the goose and harp back. They say no. And you remember how five minutes ago, they said he was guilty and was sentenced to death? Well, guess what. He's guilty, and they sentence him to death.
You know, I kid Jack and the Beanstalk. But one nice thing about this show is that they don't spring things on you suddenly. If there's gonna be a plot point, they give you plenty of time to prepare for it. Jack's taken to a prison cell, and in his pocket, he finds some of those genetically modified peas that can grow anywhere. Is he going to plant them? Will they grow? Is that ultimately going to feed all of the people in the kingdom and save them from starvation?
Then you get a little time to yourself. You can relax, take a break, get a snack. When you come back -- Oh, look! Jack planted the peas, and they're growing. It's kind of comforting. I'm starting to feel like no matter what happens in my life, Jack and the Beanstalk will always be there. My rock. My protector. Still sentenced to death, Jack? It's just nice to know that some things never change.
I have another nice thing to say about Jack and the Beanstalk: It's actually pretty educational. It's taught me a lot so far.
You see, about ten years ago, my grandmother gave me a necklace that transported me underground to the kingdom of the mole people. They were pretty cool and stuff -- digging in the earth, finding lost treasures, cooling the inner world so that volcanic eruptions didn't cause earthquakes. Anyway, they had this big machine that crushed rocks into diamonds that they said was kind of important. If we lose that, the mole people will die, we'll stop cooling the inner world, earthquakes will destroy humanity... blah blah blah, I wasn't really paying that much attention, you know?
Anyway, I just borrowed the machine. I was planning to take it back. I mean, a year here is only a day for the mole people, so I figured, I'll just borrow it for a couple of days, crush some rocks into diamonds, who's gonna notice? Then I got busy and I sort of forgot about it. I'm pretty sure I still have the machine around here somewhere.
So watching Jack and the Beanstalk made me realize that maybe that wasn't the best thing to do. I mean, the people in Giantland seem pretty upset. By the way, Giantland -- is it just me, or does that sound like a supermarket? Come to Giantland for super big savings every day! Sale today on enormous beans! Come to Giantland for bargains that are out of this world!
Giantland. It just kills me. Anyway. What was I talking about?