Pity poor Jack. There he was, minding his own business in some dusty fairy tale book when the powers that be dragooned him into active service as the front man for the would-be blockbuster "Jack the Giant Slayer."
Of course, Jack's been through the Hollywood shuffle before. Research reveals that he appeared in an Edison film as far back as 1902 and that his story has been embraced by talents as diverse as Gene Kelly, Chuck Jones and the Three Stooges. But there may never have been a Jack tale that delivered so little pleasure for so many dollars as what we have here.
With a budget estimated in the $190-million range, this "Jack" does have all things money can buy, including a hoard of computer-generated giants given to throwing burning trees around when they don't get what they want, which happens more than you might think.
PHOTOS: Scenes from 'Jack the Giant Slayer'
Aside from being very big, with feet the size of tables and bad teeth suitable for biting off human heads, these giants run to the uncouth and the grotesque: If there is a character name stranger than Gen. Fallon's Small Head, I want to know about it.
It's not only Jack who deserves some pity but also director Bryan Singer, who somehow convinced himself that this benighted project was worth his time. Singer has come quite a ways since his 1993 Sundance Film Festival victory with "Public Access" and his double-Oscar winning "The Usual Suspects," and his big-budget X-Men movies have always been smartly entertaining. With some momentary exceptions, "Jack the Giant Slayer" simply isn't any fun.
Any script with five writing credits (screenplay by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney, story by Lemke and David Dobkin) has a lot of explaining to do, and "Jack" illustrates why more usually equals less in this department.
The indifferent, unsurprising script that these men cobbled together has all the earmarks of being an assignment, an exercise in the arbitrary with no organic reason for being. If any human being (I can't speak for giants) had even a moment of personal passion about this project, the evidence is not on the screen.
"Jack" is set in the made-up medieval kingdom of Cloister and begins with two children, a pauper and a princess, separately having the same story read to them by an indulgent parent.
The tale is set in a mythical past, where zealous monks create magic beans to grow a beanstalk they hope will get them closer to God. Instead of heaven, the monks run across the aforementioned cranky giants, who apparently live on an island floating high above Earth. These large folks promptly go down the stalk and terrorize all humanity before the monks fashion a magic crown that gets the big guys back under control. Neither the beans nor the crown, the parents insist, is anything to worry about today.
Cut to a decade later, when 18-year-old Jack (Nicholas Hoult, who played opposite Colin Firth in "A Single Man") is so impoverished as a tenant farmer that he heads into town to sell the only horse his family has.
Whom should he bump into but Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), thirsting for adventure and trying to be incognito but happy to have Jack's help dealing with the medieval version of sexual harassment.
While Jack heads home, thinking never to see the princess again, she returns to the palace, where she has to deal with her overprotective father, a.k.a. the king (Ian McShane), and Roderick (Stanley Tucci). Roderick is nominally her fiancé, but, in fact, he's in love with the notion of dominating the world -- power he thinks those magical beans (no surprise, they do exist) can provide him.
Jack somehow ends up with the beans, and when one of them gets loose, the Brobdingnagian stalk that results gives the princess more adventure than she bargained for. The foliage propels her up to where those giants have been thirsting for payback for generations. Their leader is the two-headed Gen. Fallon (a computer-generated version of Bill Nighy plays the main head), who rises to command by saying blustery things like "we will taste the sweet nectar of revenge."
Back on Earth, Jack, despite being "not wildly keen on heights," contrives to join an expedition up the vine with the Guardians, Cloister's version of Navy SEALs, led by Elmont (Ewan McGregor at his best), who seems to be the only sane individual in the film.
It's not a good sign for a movie when a large beanstalk is more interesting than many of its characters. "Jack the Giant Slayer" has designs on combining romance, adventure and comedy in an old-fashioned way, and while Hoult and Tomlinson are an appealing couple, that goal is beyond this film. Even Gen. Fallon's Small Head would have to admit the truth in that.
'Jack the Giant Slayer'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense scenes fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In general release
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