When director Bryan Singer made the transition from indie thrillers (“The Usual Suspects”) to studio blockbusters (“X-Men,” “Superman Returns”), he successfully managed to hold onto his gee-whiz enthusiasm in the process, creating popcorn movies that were light on their feet rather than lumbering. There are a few things wrong with his latest film, “Jack the Giant Slayer,” but that lack of breezy giddiness is the one that’s most dispiriting. Though never quite feeling impersonal, this “Lord of the Rings”-style fantasy-action update of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is as ungainly as the movie’s hulking, fearsome monsters—and not nearly as powerful.
The movie introduces us to Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a medieval peasant farmer who meets the beautiful Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who isn’t happy about her arranged marriage to the king’s shifty associate Roderick (Stanley Tucci). But both Jack and Isabelle’s destinies get rewritten after Jack finds some seemingly ordinary beans that turn into a massive beanstalk. Unfortunately, the stalk sprouts under a house with Isabelle inside it, prompting the brave knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor), Roderick, and Jack to lead a team to reach the top and rescue the princess, encountering a whole mess of nasty giants who love feasting on humans.
Featuring three credited screenwriters—not to mention a separate “story by” writer—“Jack the Giant Slayer” very much feels like an event movie put together by committee, each participant adding elements in the hopes of making the film more marketable. We get rousing storming-the-castle battle sequences, a coming-of-age tale, romance, booger jokes, and lots of people getting eaten by giants—although, to ensure the movie didn’t get an R, the filmmakers never show any of the grisly deaths.
What we never get, unfortunately, is much of a rooting interest. Hoult has impressed in everything from “About a Boy” to “A Single Man,” but as Jack he’s little more than the latest twist on the humble commoner who becomes a hero. No doubt Singer imagined “Lord of the Rings” and Frodo Baggins when putting together “Jack the Giant Slayer,” but the emphasis on action over character—accompanied by woefully mediocre dialogue—doesn’t give the actors much room to build performances.
McGregor is agreeably swashbuckling and Tucci does fiendish with a twinkle in his eye, but this is a movie where you’re meant to notice the wall-to-wall effects first and foremost, and even they aren’t all that outstanding. Also, as a warning for those with small children, “Jack the Giant Slayer” is surprisingly intense. You can sense Singer’s excitement in delivering a dark-toned fairy tale with real life-or-death stakes, but when you’re dealing with a film this blandly constructed, the darkness isn’t compelling. It just weighs everything down more.
Critic’s Score: C
Directed by Bryan Singer
Casting by Nina Gold, Roger Mussenden, Jeremy Rich
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor