Humankind has always had an appetite for fairy tales, but you’d think it would have been sated by now filmwise — with two recent Snow White movies and a Hansel & Gretel 3D extravaganza under our belts, plus a couple of Sleeping Beauties in the pipeline.
But no. The latest feature film treatment of a fairy tale is Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer, a competent but utterly unnecessary retelling of the story about a young man from a rustic hamlet who trades for some magic beans, grows a towering beanstalk and climbs it to confront a cannibalistic giant. In Singer’s version, there are quite a few cannibalistic giants, and the beanstalk is a sort of superhighway connecting their land and the earth, a road best left closed. Jack (Nicholas Hoult, last seen undead in Warm Bodies) doesn’t mean to open it — he doesn’t even realize giants exist outside of myth — but he does. The giants are not in a good mood, and soon the war between the species is rekindled.
There’s more intrigue to the premise, too, involving a magical crown; a headstrong runaway princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) rumored to be a rebel but still in need of rescuing because, you know, she’s a girl; her father the king (Ian McShane), who inexplicably wants to marry her off to a gap-toothed villain (Stanley Tucci); and a loyal soldier (Ewan McGregor), a sunny good chap who vows vengeance on his enemies even when he’s being rolled in flour and stuffed in a pastry.
Jack the Giant Slayer needs more of his hearty humor. Director of The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men movies (but also the dreadful Superman Returns and the misfire Valkyrie), Singer doesn’t use enough of that humor to placate an adult audience, instead alternating between treating the material too seriously and making snot jokes (which makes you wonder for whom exactly this film was made). Teens and pre-teens weaned on videogames will squirm with boredom or at least wish they could control the action themselves, and the giants are a little too frightening for small children (they eat a few members of the cast, though usually off camera or from a distance).
The giants themselves are actually pretty cool; they’re muscle-y, dirty, hairy, nasty creatures. Though they are in general just really big men, they apparently reproduce asexually, as there are no lady giants to be found, which could explain why the males are so cranky. Singer pulls off a fun shot of them bursting through the trees to chase our heroes, whose horses gallop toward the safety of the castle, and there’s no denying the pleasure of hearing the rousing cry of “Release the oil!” before the final battle. But in the end you have to wonder if making this movie was worth all the time, money and effort.
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewen Bremner.
Director: Bryan Singer.
Screenwriters: Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney, David Dobkin.
Producers: David Dobkin, Ori Marmur, Patrick McCormick, Neal H. Moritz, Bryan Singer.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 114 minutes. Intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language. Playing at area theaters.