REVIEW: Despite a few bright gags, the fabled folktale grows stale in this formulaic retelling.
Fee, fie, ho hum. “Jack the Giant Slayer” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Like the recent “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” and 2011’s “Red Riding Hood,” it struggles to find the right balance of elements to amuse kids, thrill action-hungry adolescents and entertain adults. Instead it feels like a film made by a committee, for a demographic rather than an audience. It’s a tale full of sound and fury (and flying bodies) signifying nothing.
Bryan Singer, who gave us “The Usual Suspects,” two good “X-Men” films and “Valkyrie,” usually makes innovative movies humming with intelligence. Here he directs in the standard swoosh-and-slash syntax of blockbusters, leaving not a fingerprint of individual style on the product. It’s difficult to inject new life into an ages-old folk tale (only last summer’s vibrant “Snow White and the Huntsman” succeeded in recent years). This project is about as fresh as a gas-station burrito.
Our Jack is Nicholas Hoult, not the sly scamp of the fairy tale, but a good-hearted fellow with a too-trusting nature. Living far from the capital and its very Disney-esque palace, he hopes to move up in the world. Before long he does, literally. After swapping his family horse at the market for a few allegedly priceless beans, he accidentally rotates the farm’s main crop with a forest of skyscraping beanstalks.
The giants above make off with the kingdom’s sweet, eyelash-batting Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson). Ewan McGregor plays Elmont, the captain of the palace guards. With Errol Flynn aplomb he dashes into battle determined to cut the big boys down to size. Jack, smitten with Her Loveliness, volunteers for the mission. Also on the climb is Roderick (Stanley Tucci), a dastardly nobleman soon to be Isabelle’s husband through an arranged marriage.
The dry Tucci and droll McGregor offer the film’s best moments of “Princess Bride”-style self-satire. Too often, though, the film’s idea of humor is letting us know that when giants pass gas, it’s really, really foul.
Giantland, borrowing many design cues from Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, is home to an army of warlike buffoons led by Gen. Fallon (Bill Nighy, performing via motion-capture). He sports a smaller, Gollum-like auxiliary head on his right shoulder, which offers a running commentary of entertaining gibberish. There are several good gags as the humans skirmish against their oafish yet dangerous Goliaths, who have a taste for human flesh. McGregor’s swashbuckling knight, a master of denial when the tide’s against him, insists that he’s in control even as a giant chef wraps him in dough and pops him into the oven for a dish of pigs in a blanket.
Continuity and plot plausibility become increasingly irrelevant as the battle spreads. The infighting among good and bad Englishmen runs almost as fierce as the siege against the giants.
After their escape, the film promises to settle into a princess-and-pauper romance, but “Jack” is afflicted with the contemporary movie disease of multiple redundant endings. There’s a gigantic counterattack by the big fellas, who are tough enough to survive huge quantities of arrows and flaming oil. Amid the frantic scampering many a foot soldier is trampled by gigantic feet. It goes on so long you feel like the film has taken a battering ram to your head.
The juggernaut finale could be measured in megadeaths — there will be no Happy Meal tie-ins. But the carnage is less likely to set the kiddies squirming than the limp courtship scenes. After seven or eight wrap-ups (I lost count) we bid farewell to the story in modern-day London with a final twist that will inspire many a face-palming cry of “D’oh!” Before that point I was grateful that the constant noise level of the action scenes at least kept me awake. Now I’m not so sure.
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