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“Jack the Giant Slayer” seeks to answer that age-old question, that query that has dogged mankind since the beginning of time: who would win a tug-of-war match between humans and giants? Who says Hollywood is afraid to make a movie about important topics? But while director Bryan Singer may momentarily probe that deep, dark mystery near the climax, the film is an empty shell, a blatant attempt to infuse the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story with a grandiose “Lord of the Rings” scale, and there is very little to recommend it.
Big and dumb, “Jack the Giant Slayer” feels like a movie without an audience. The CGI giants burp and fart and pick their noses, feats sure to elicit giggles and claps of glee from the younger members of the audience. At the same time, it also attempts to be a violent fantasy adventure with enough adult themes to keep older viewers interested. Trying to be light and fluffy for the kids, moody and dark for the teens, and brutal enough for adults, “Jack” fails on all three fronts. No one demographic is going to want to sit through the entirety of this movie.
You know the story. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is poor. Despite his vivid imagination and head-in-the-clouds dreaminess, he has no hope of ever being anything but. When he trades his horse for a handful of magic beans—stolen magic beans in this version—things get interesting. For him, not for you, the story is dull and bland. For example, there’s also Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a rebellious princess who just wants to be free to explore the world on her terms. She’s a stock modern character, because no princess wants to be a princess anymore. They are, of course, completely compatible and meant to be together even though the odds are stacked against them. See, Isabelle is to marry Roderick, her father’s creepy old royal bro—a sniveling, scheming, scenery chewing Stanley Tucci.
Hoult and Tomlinson are fine as the leads, but the script—partially written by Christopher McQuarrie, which is why it’s disappointing that this isn’t better—doesn’t give them much work to do. Maybe they’re good actors, maybe not, there’s not a lot to judge them on, their job is to look pretty and not get in the way of the CGI. There are multiple “he’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?” moments, and at one point, I swear to you, there’s an actual joke about judging books by their cover.
When Jack accidentally gets the magic beans wet, a beanstalk of all things grows to the sky. Damn it, son, that monk told you not to get them wet or feed them after midnight. Wait. Ignore that last part. It turns out that all the childhood stories and legends about giants—Jack and Isabelle’s parents read them the same tales as youngsters—are true, and that’s where the monsters live, on a floating island in the sky only accessible by beanstalk.
There are two characters in “Jack the Giant Slayer,” however, that wind up being a lot of fun, and both, oddly enough, are veterans of “Trainspotting.” Ewan McGregor plays Elmont, a sexy-haired knight sworn to protect Isabelle. He’s a cartoonish hero in every sense of the word, and he’s having more fun with this movie than anyone. Anyone, that is, except perhaps Ewen Bremner, who plays Wickie, Roderick’s right hand. Full of an over the top sociopathic glee, Wickie grins and giggles his way through murder after murder.
It really is too bad when the giants show up. Though there are a few sweeping, breathtaking shots at the top of the beanstalk, overall the green screen work is obvious and the real and the digital elements rarely mesh well. The giants themselves are good enough, though most of them resemble Merle from “The Walking Dead,” or at least generic hillbilly caricatures. They look like massive cartoons, but that feels like an intentional choice on the part of the filmmakers.
One of the main giants looks like a giant Chucky from “Child’s Play,” running around with a Denis the Menace-style slingshot, while the general, Fallon, is, literally, a two-headed monster. Instead of being terrifying, or scary at all, one of the heads is a spastic, shrunken inbred. It doesn’t say words, communicating instead via an assortment of farting sounds, grunts, and laughs. Voiced by Bill Nighy, this one entity embodies the problem of trying to please everyone at the same time. On one head he’s stern, grim, and bites humans in half; on the other, he’s a gibbering simpleton who makes silly noises you’re supposed to chuckle at.
Granted, when you get to the climax, the big, epic, man versus giant battle, “Jack the Giant Slayer” becomes moderately entertaining. You can just sit back and watch giants fling burning trees, and 12th century Englishmen with rapid-fire crossbows. This is the second movie of 2013 (“Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” was the first) where old timey folk have repeating weapons. It’s possible that I’m that out of touch with ancient military technology, but I call bullshit on that. Even though things look up at this point, you’ve already waded through almost two hours of this nonsense, and it’s too little, too late.
It’s a shame that “Jack the Giant Slayer” manages to squander a strong supporting cast. I already mentioned Tucci, McGregor, and Bremner, but Warrick Davis (“Willow”) shows up, as do Eddie Marsen (“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”) and Ian McShane (“Deadwood”), in small doses. They’re all okay, but nothing special, which is the overall feeling you walk away from this movie with. There is nothing absolutely unforgivable about “Jack the Giant Slayer”—I’ve already encountered a surprising number of people who enjoy it a great deal, so maybe you will, too—but it’s flat, vacant, and never anything more than people going through the motions.
Bryan Singer (director)/Christopher McQuarrie (writer)/Darren Lemke (writer)/Dan Studney (writer)
CAST: Nicholas Hoult…Jack
Bill Nighy…General Fallon