Bryan Singer, who for a while seemed to have abdicated his fanboy fave title to Christopher Nolan, has re-emerged with not a superhero movie, but an old school fairy tale. And “Jack the Giant Slayer” is an entertaining, high energy romp, which oddly doesn’t seem to have an original thought in it.
Nicholas Hoult, who played the young Hank McCoy, aka “The Beast” in “X-Men: First Class,” which Singer produced, but didn’t direct, plays the title character, who thankfully has been allowed to remain a naive farm boy in this retelling of the familiar fairy tale. Before we go too far on the “familiar” part, it might do to mention that there are 2 versions of this old story. “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which tends to be the title on the Little Golden Book versions, is a later, sanitized version of “Jack the Giant Killer,” which was a much darker spin-off of the Arthurian legends. That version is much more violent and Jack isn’t as well behaved.
Hoult’s Jack is a perfectly nice guy who can be a little dim at the wrong moment. Sent by his crabby uncle to sell the horse and cart to raise money for farm repairs, he loses both but ends up in possession of supposedly magic beans, just like in the fairy tale. In a new twist though, he also intervenes against some townie thugs who are messing with a fair damsel that turns out to be the local princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) who’s looking for adventure and gotten in over her head.
Okay, the twist isn’t that new. A lot of Disney’s “Aladdin” has gotten superimposed on this live action feature, and it isn’t the only movie fantasy that pops up. A lot of the humor is modeled on “The Princess Bride” and Ewan McGregor’s Elmont could easily be Cary Elwes in that cult classic. The music sounds like “The Lord of the Rings,” the first appearance of a giant is foreshadowed in shades of “King Kong” and when the beanstalk appears, it’s in the middle of a storm and takes Jack’s entire house up to the land of the giants in a sequence that begs someone to say “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
And yet it’s very hard to hold all that against the movie, which is briskly paced, generally good-natured and entertaining throughout.
Both these kids are in the mold of Disney protagonists, which means that they’re halfway to being orphans out of the starting gate. Walt Disney had a strained relationship with his mother, and most of his cartoon heroes didn’t seem to have them at all. Ian McShane, as the princess’ father, like most Disney cartoon fathers, is a well-meaning widower who isn’t overburdened with brains.
Stanley Tucci plays the royal advisor and the princess’ fiancee, and even very young children will peg him as a bad guy right away. Tucci underplays, which prevents him from coming off as an obvious pastiche of Jafar in “Aladdin,” but also keeps the movie a little short on juice in the villain department.
The giants, needless to say in this day and age, are motion capture and CGI, and as far as I’m concerned, look it. That being said, they look as good as most other CGI effects these days and audiences are clearly accepting the somewhat homogenous look of CGI effects work. Billy Nighy, who provides the motion capture and voice performance for General Fallon the giant, is unrecognizable. He also has two heads, the smaller of which is played by John Kassir, who is in fact billed as “General Fallon’s Small Head.”
No one quite seems to know how scary, or how funny, the giants are supposed to be here. One suspects there’s an early draft of the screenplay where the giants come off as wronged warriors whose grievances against humans might have some merit. Some of that remains here, tucked in around a kitchen scene where Ewan McGregor is being wrapped in dough next to a couple of pigs getting the same treatment (pigs in blankets - get it?). That’s straight out of “The Little Mermaid,” although it gets a little ruder when the giant chef picks his nose and eats the boogers.
The production is handsome, and the beanstalk itself actually emerges as a visual element approaching being a character. The production design itself is sort of generically medieval, although everything seems too clean. (Remember “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and the answer to the immortal question, “How d’you know it’s the king?”) Singer’s usually distinctive visuals seem watered-down here, possibly due to the enormous amount of special effects. Still, it has to be conceded that unlike a growing number of current action directors, he tends to favor straightforward photographic compositions and holds shots long enough for the audience to follow action sequences without danger of catastrophic central nervous system disruption.
“Jack the Giant Slayer” was shot in 3D using the same Red Epic cameras as “The Hobbit,” though the results are a bit less extraordinary. Nonetheless, it does provide some additional impact to the well-executed action.
A point that bears making is that this movie is darker and more violent than parents might be expecting. A startling number of people don’t seem to pay much attention to ratings these days, and “Jack the Giant Slayer” is rated PG-13, which is just as close to R as it is to PG, but is seldom perceived that way. Parents see fairy tale titles and expect Disney World, not some Texas Chainsaw Massacre theme park where you have to show proof of age. The original versions of most fairy tales are a frightening assortment of abandonment-rape-incest-cannibalism nightmares from the darkest subterranean depths of our collective subconscious. This movie doesn’t get quite that dark - though there’s little doubt about what’s happening when giants bite people’s heads off - but don’t expect Mickey and Goofy to make cameos, either.
If the screenplay is muddled in tone (and it is), it bears noting that the screenwriting credits list about the maximum number of contributors allowed by Writers Guild rules, and we might be entitled to suspect there was an ongoing issue about how dark, or how funny, this movie was supposed to be. “Jack the Giant Slayer” straddles that moat a little awkwardly, but still provides some diverting offseason entertainment.