Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men), working with a team of screenwriters (including regular collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, Jack Reacher), brings to the screen a new mammoth-budget 3D version of the fairy tales ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. With battle sequences too violent for the little kids and a story far too silly to keep adults interested; Jack the Giant Slayer is likely to suffer from no-mans-land marketing odds. Having been in various stages of development since 2005, it tells the familiar story of the farm boy, played by Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man, Warm Bodies), who acquires giant beanstalk-sprouting magic beans, faces off against a man-eating giant and makes several perilous ventures up and down the beanstalk to bring stolen wealth to his family. Here, a bedtime story passed from parent-to-child about a war that once raged between humans and giants becomes the catalyst for further exploring the giant’s realm, and establishing grounds for their descent on earth when free from human control.
When Jack is sent into town to sell a horse to support his uncle’s farm, he ends up with the beans in hand, stolen by a monk from the study of the shady Lord Roderick (a sneering Stanley Tucci), advisor to King Brahmwell (bored authoritarian Ian McShane), ruler of Cloister, and future husband of Princess Isabelle (attractive newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson). Roderick is in possession of the crown used by an ancient King to control the giants that inhabit Gantua, a floating realm situated between heaven and earth. When chance brings Jack and Isabelle together on a stormy night, and when one of Jack’s discarded beans sprouts, the beanstalk carries Jack’s house and a trapped Isabelle to the gateway. Jack volunteers to accompany Roderick and a troupe of the King’s knights, including Elmont (a delightfully camp Ewan McGregor),up the beanstalk to rescue her. When the party encounters the giants and find themselves also trapped in their lair, it is up to Jack to rescue Isabelle and warn Brahmwell of the giants’ descent on earth to seek revenge.
With a budget in the vicinity of $200 million you would hope that the visual effects were of a high quality, and some of the beanstalk effects, especially the stalks sprouting from within the walls of the castle, were very impressive. The design of Gantua and the giants themselves were quite good too, but the peculiar decisions of making the giants less a balanced civilization and more a testosterone-fueled dudes-only army, and giving the Bill Nighy-voiced leader a mugging, gurgling second head for attempted laughs, only leave you perplexed.
There is one particularly inventive instance of peril with McGregor’s character under threat to be turned into a giant’s hot dog, and a giants vs. humans-on-horseback chase across a field toward the climax, is exciting too. But almost everything else here feels recycled and predictable. When you care so little about the human characters, except for the uber-cool Elmont, it becomes hard to discern between the heroes and villains, especially when the film suggests that the giants have genuine grounds for revenge against the humans.
Hoult is likeable enough as our hero, but his range of emotions certainly doesn’t vary much. The unlikely romance that materializes between Jack and Isabelle will charm some audiences but the pair has little chemistry. Only Ewan “I have a bad feeling about this” McGregor (yes, that is actually one of his lines) understood how silly the whole affair was and seemed to have fun with his accent and the ridiculous lines assigned him. The screenwriters, when they were writing some of these self-aware lines, must have found them hilarious on paper. But in the scheme of the film’s predominantly darker tone, they just don’t fare well.
One of the film’s unintentionally hilarious moments comes following a close shave between Jack and a rising drawbridge. Elmont rushes over to him and with a smile and a wink says warmly: “Hello Jack. Bit of a close one there.” There’s not a shred of seriousness to this, and simply following his character for the duration would have been more fun. The rest of the veterans – Tucci, McShane, Eddie Marsan – are simply paying bills, while Ewan Bremner, who plays Roderick’s attendant Wicke, should not be in anything, ever. None of them have any desire in making their stock characters remotely memorable.
Apart from the visual effects, technically there isn’t much to credit. The score is dull and generic, the 3D unnecessary. As a fantasy-adventure the story certainly moves quickly and I never lost interest; but with such a weak screenplay and a self-congratulatory cheesiness that doesn’t fit with the perilous journey at the core, and the disconcertingly violent pitched battles toward the end, it is hard to recommend enduring this run-of-the-mill fairytale re-imagining.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22