1952 / 83 minutes
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello star in their own version of this classic tale. The story begins with the desperate-for-work pair signing up for a night’s work as last-minute babysitters. We get to the fairy-tale part when Costello asks the boy they are sitting to read him a story. Then, when we shift from the real world to the fairy tale, the film switches over from a sepia-toned black and white to full color, like happens in The Wizard of Oz. And also like Oz, the people populating this fairyland look awfully familiar.
While the story continues on in the usual way, there are some wrinkles, including Jack (Costello) getting a buddy to come along for the adventure – Abbott is the village butcher who wants to retrieve his stolen cow. A princess and prince are two more addition, both of them kidnapped by the giant and held for ransom. This is the romantic angle, the two of them starting as strangers, unable to see each other in their adjoining cells, but falling in love as they talk and sing to one another through the bars.
When we meet the villain of the piece, parents might be surprised to see that he’s only 7 or 8 feet tall – big, sure, but are we calling that a giant? But that only shows this is intended for children, more than families. Sure, mom and dad can come along for the ride, and they’ll like lots of bits of it too, but this is meant for the undiscerning younger viewer who isn’t going to find fault with a short giant, a singing harp whose lips don’t move, or duels done with bending rubber swords. They’ll laugh the first, second, and third time that Jack trips or gets bonked on the head, even as mom and dad will get their main enjoyment vicariously, watching their kids.
I should mention one joke that parents will have to explain. At one point Costello inadvertently mixes some gunpowder into the chicken feed, and while I won’t give away what happens, kids who have never seen a powder horn will have to be clued into what just happened if they are going to get the joke.
A minor caution would be that the boy they are babysitting is uppity…but mom and dad can point that out.
The main caution is with the physical humor. The fights with the giant are all played to comic effect, and I think today’s kids will get that. The only scene I found off-putting was in the black and white conclusion, where Abbott slaps Costello for sleeping on the job. Costello seems to feel no ill effects, but I mention it only because it happened in the “real” world and isn’t the kind of thing you’d see in today’s children’s films – this is the slap in slapstick, and it just struck me as mean, not funny.
This is a good film for the kids, but in need of some parental guidance because of the slapstick. For the parents, it is a little slow, and a little too silly, but still enjoyable overall.
The film’s copyright has expired which has allowed all sorts of publishers to put out their own tweaked versions. That means you kind find copies that are entirely black and white, and the different versions vary in length from 78 to 83 minutes. So be sure you find a good one. You can watch Jack and the Beanstalk in low resolution for free down below, but better quality versions are widely available on all sorts of streaming services.