Hollywood's tendency to milk a genre until its bone dry is again on display with Jack the Giant Slayer, an expensive, CGI-heavy snoozer from Bryan Singer. The fascination with mature fairy tale adaptations has led to a mixed bag of features. For every $1B-grossing Alice in Wonderland, there's a Red Riding Hood that doesn't make a whole lot of noise. Both of those films are awful, though, and so is this one, but at least they gave the impression someone actually cared if they were any good.
The film has had all of the earmarks of a stinker for quite a while. The first trailer debuted more than a year ago, and it was so laughably bad the studio pushed the release date back from last summer until now. It's unclear what they did to actually improve it, as the animation still resembles outdated video game cut scenes, and the script still cobbled together by a quartet who apparently never communicated with one another. The result is a bland, severely underwritten adventure with forgettable characters and memorable miscues.
Fresh off his breakthrough leading man turn in Warm Bodies, Nicholas Hoult's wattage dims considerably as Jack, a poor farmer's son who we meet a young age, regaled with fantastical tales of giants living in the skies above. His sense of wonder and adventure mirrors that of Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), the princess and heir to the throne held by her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane). Years later, he goes into town to sell a horse, but ends up trading it for a handful of magic beans. He doesn't realize they're from another era when humans and the land of giants were interconnected. Those days are long gone thanks to a fearsome war, with the humans creating a crown that gives the wearer dominance over the giants.
So the story hews closely to the original tale, with a few embellishments to flesh things out a little. Jack is still a lovable and earnest screw-up, who doesn't realize the beans' true nature. When the plucky and beautiful Princess Isabelle shows up at his home one night to escape the weather, he accidentally gets the beans wet enough to sprout a giant beanstalk that carries her up into the giants' kingdom. The King is none too pleased, and charges his head knight (Ewan McGregor) to take some men and charge up the beanstalk to rescue the Princess. Jack volunteers, and the story proceeds to what is a very lengthy and dull climb.
There are other factors thrown in for good measure that don't really add up to anything meaningful. Stanley Tucci, always terrific at smarmy villainy, is given less than nothing to work with as the traitorous Roderick, who hopes to wed the Princess and become King. Then again, none of the characters are developed in any way. Jack is little more than a generic hero, given flat one-liners that are expected to pass for a sense of humor. The only character with any real pep is Isabelle, a plucky and courageous heroine who proves to be as capable as anyone. This would be a better film if it were about her dealing with a father, and an entire time period, that consider women to be helpless. It mirrors Pixar's Brave in that respect, but not in much else.
Originally titled Jack the Giant Killer, the less aggressive titled was given to match its family-geared PG-13 rating. So many writers taking a stab at the script clearly had an impact on the tone, with some sticking to the plan and presenting an inoffensive swashbuckler with the occasional fart joke for the kiddies. Then the next moment giants are ripping off heads and tossing aside the corpses. Who is this movie supposed to be for, anyway?
Singer has always been great at crafting snappy, exciting action sequences, and once the fighting between the humans and giants begins it more than measures up. But that's not until much later on. Before then the plot unrolls in a linear fashion, with nothing seeming to have much in the way of relevance. A few key characters are killed, but nobody seems to react to it. Even a fatal battle later on, which has some dire consequences in terms of the giants' allegiances, is never given more than a passing recognition. The point is clear from the start: Just get to the really loud and noisy battle stuff. That's all anyone really cares about.
The fighting is intense, clearly inspired by Peter Jackson's Lord of theRings, with the massive creatures hurling burning trees and stones from afar. This is what Singer does best, and he does great work in realizing the scope and scale of the giants. When there are literally dozens of them together in an all-out rampage it's even better. The final battle is long, fiery, and satisfying enough to have many leaving with a smile. Others will sit back and wonder how such an expensive film can look quite this shoddy in the year 2013. There's a certain bar for blockbusters that needs to be met, and Jack the Giant Slayer simply isn't tall enough to reach the mark.