Film Review: Jack the Giant Slayer

Farmer's son climbs to a land of giants to rescue a kidnapped princess in a fast-moving update of the popular fairytale.

Warner Bros. adds to the fairytale cycle with Jack the Giant Slayer, a film that's a bit moodier and bloodier than some parents might like. Kids won't mind the carnage, but they may not be all that impressed by an adventure that recycles so much material from other movies. 3D and some extended battle sequences will help boost Jack's box-office, at least until Oz the Great and Powerful opens.

For those wondering, yes, this is "Jack and the Beanstalk," with a little "Jack the Giant Killer" thrown in. Ramped up with 3D, CG and motion-capture technology, it's not entirely bad. With a better hero and a little more originality, Jack the Giant Slayer might have crossed over to entirely good.

Familiar elements of the story remain: magic beans, vine to the heavens, murderous giant, treasure horde. The four credited writers embellish the basic plot with a romance across class barriers, an evil aristocrat, a dashing knight and a forced marriage.

A framing device introduces young Jack and his future friend Isabelle, the former the poor son of a widower, the latter a princess destined to rule the country of Cloister. Weirdly, characters reveal the plot of Jack the Giant Slayer a number of times before the actual story starts, once during a pantomime in a fairground tent.

The grown-up Jack (Nicholas Hoult) has the demeanor and attention span of a child. Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is now a rebellious tomboy on the run from an arranged marriage to the despicable Roderick (Stanley Tucci). Jack defends Isabelle from local ruffians, receives magic beans from a dissident monk, and finds himself harboring the runaway princess during a downpour that night.

Flung by beanstalk to the aerie kingdom of Gantua, Isabelle become prisoner of a race of vindictive giants led by the two-headed Fallon (Bill Nighy and John Kassir). It's up to Jack and noble knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor, channeling Kenneth Branagh) to rescue her. First they will have to best Roderick, whose magic crown lets him enslave the giants.

Director Bryan Singer brings some flair to the story while dropping winking references for older viewers. The entrance to the giants' lair looks a lot like Skull Island, for example. And about the beans, Jack is warned, "Don't let them get wet." But the dominant influence here is The Lord of the Rings, the gold standard for what has become a New Line house style.

And Singer can't quite break free from that style. The giants here resemble orcs and trolls attacking castle strongholds. Fallon even has his own Gollum attached as a second head. Once the battles start, Jack looks like any other noisy, chaotic fairytale adaptation.

Casting makes a big difference, however. McGregor and Tucci approach their roles with high spirits and a sense of fun, while Ian McShane brings unexpected shades to his part as the king. As the princess, Tomlinson is consistently pleasant. Hoult is the weak link in a film that can't afford any. His hangdog posture and bland line readings are hard to watch.

If you can read this, you're not the target audience for Jack and the Giant Slayer. But parents buy the tickets, and Singer and his crew have brought enough to the film to keep them interested. It may not have much depth, but Jack is still more fun to watch than a lot of its competition.