Humble farm lad Jack (Nicholas Hoult) grew up listening to tall tales of giants dwelling in vast castles in the sky. Only a short distance away, Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) loved the same stories. Peasant boy and princess meet at a market when Jack rescues Isabelle from an unruly mob whereupon he inadvertently trades his horse for a handful of stolen magic beans. When the beans sprout a giant beanstalk hoisting his house into the sky with Isabelle inside, Jack joins the royal rescue mission commanded by Elmont (Ewan McGregor) with the princess’ intended, the scheming Roderick (Stanley Tucci) in tow. Together they venture into the dreaded kingdom of giants to confront the terrifying two-headed General Fallon (voiced by Bill Nighy) who with his hideous army plans to conquer the human world.
Combining two different fairytales about a giant-slaying hero named Jack, Jack the Giant Slayer shares a name in common with vintage stop-motion favourite Jack the Giant Killer (1962) but draws most of its plot from the Jack and the Beanstalk legend that previously inspired two twenty-first century reboots: Brian Henson’s all-star revisionist made-for-TV epic from 2001 and a children’s movie in 2010 starring Chloë Grace Moretz. In interviews Bryan Singer asserted he set out to make an old fashioned fairytale adventure long before the genre came back in vogue. Yet prolonged production delays meant his film had the misfortune to arrive after the glut of revisionist fairytale films and proved a costly flop. To add insult to injury critics derided the film for failing to do anything new with the source material.
The film actually strikes a likeable note at the start with a “he’s behind you” gag that seems like a nod to the fairytale’s pantomime roots. Singer deftly intertwines Jack and Princess Isabelle’s personal sub-plots deploying archaic storytelling devices with some charm, though the plot still lacks a strong emotional thread. Aside from the surprisingly ropey CGI prologue, production values prove exemplary with the giants themselves a pretty fearsome and intimidating lot, memorably stuffing Ewan McGregor into a pie. Still looking boyish enough to have played the lead, it is oddly McGregor who performs much of the heroism though his Bertie Wooster like accent seems pitched towards parody. By contrast Nicholas Hoult, exceptional as Beast in the Singer-produced X-Men: First Class (2011), is a strangely bland and unconvincing hero although Eleanor Tomlinson is actually quite good as the gently resilient damsel in distress and their relationship is appealingly drawn. Elsewhere the film wastes Eddie Marsan (fast becoming a staple of fairytale action fare) as disposable monster chow while Ian McShane grimaces grimly as the King, Ewan Bremner seems to be impersonating a rat and Ralph Brown sports impressive facial hair as an anonymous general. As the gargantuan villain Bill Nighy snarls menacingly but there are faintly unsettling undertones given all the giants sound Irish.
In spite of the odd irreverent quip from our hesitant hero and surfeit of farting giant gags, this treads the line between old-fashioned adventure yarn and Monty Python style send-up without lapsing into the snide sarcasm of the Shrek sequels. After a solid start the plot loses momentum with discouraging speed. With Roderick established as a bad egg early on it comes as no surprise when he pulls a double-cross and stands unmasked as the true villain. However once the Jack and the Beanstalk half of the movie ends, the plot promptly reboots itself with a fresh villain and a whole new set of problems. At this point things liven up considerably as Singer stages some of the set-pieces with great flair. While the film never achieves dimensions beyond those of a routine fantasy actioner the finale has a nice circularity about it while the coda set in the present day sets up an intriguing sequel unlikely to happen.