PLOT Farm boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) follows disenchanted princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) up a magic beanstalk, hoping to save her from the nasty giants who, legends say, live in a world beyond the clouds. Jack is accompanied by some of the king’s men, one of whom has hatched a treacherous plan to bring giants down to Earth – literally.
Once upon a time, Hollywood decided that Greek myths and Grimm folk tales, being out of copyright and widely known, would make ideal source material for a series of big-budget films, full of heroic teenage heroes and 3D razzle-dazzle. Aim light-ish, as in Mirror, Mirror and Oz the Great and Powerful, and you might entice the Alice in Wonderland audience; go toward the dark side (Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) and you might just get the Twi-hard teens. Now, Bryan Singer has thrown his Bad Hat Harry Productions into the ring, grinding elements of Arthurian, Viking and other popular versions of the ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (the film’s original title) and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ folk tales into a galumphing great 3D adventure, which eschews cynical, samizdat demographic engineering in favour of good old-fashioned rollicking adventure. But then, so did Jabberwocky.
The opening scenes strike an uncertain tone, using deliberately unfinished computer animation to describe, in bedtime story form, the time when giants roamed the Earth, connected to their lofty homeland by humongous beanstalks, until Erik the Great (or ‘Erik the Terrible’ as the giants know him) severed the link, banishing them to legend. Given that the film was pushed back nine months to allow more time for special effects work, this deliberately dodgy sequence does not bode well for the rest of the film. Neither does the fudged storytelling of the establishing scenes, in which Jack and the princess meet at the market, where Jack trades his horse for some “magic” beans, which he is told, Gremlins-style, not to get wet. Alas, the sudden rainstorm that causes the princess (conveniently) to take shelter at Jack’s place, also works its magic on the beans, carrying Isabelle to the land of the giants.
Answering the hero’s call to action, Jack heads up the beanstalk to save his beloved, accompanied by the king’s champion (a dashing Ewan McGregor, enjoying himself enormously) and Isabelle’s slippery betrothed (Stanley Tucci). This treacherous climb is, ironically, where the film finds its footing, mixing comedy and action with a confidence the set-up sorely lacks. It is here that we meet the giants themselves (including their leader, a two-headed monstrosity mo-capped and voiced by Bill Nighy), rendered in the not-quite-real CG style of the creatures from I Am Legend, giving some of their sequences the feel of the narrative bits from a video game. Luckily, the Big Unfriendly Giants are a hoot, individually characterised like big bad versions of the dwarfs from The Hobbit, so that even when they don’t blend well with the live action footage, they’re enormous fun – literally.
Where Jack the Giant Slayer really stands head and shoulders above other recent fairy tale adaptations is in its sense of adventure, which is closer in spirit to The Princess Bride and Shrek than the try-hard Twilight wannabes. The film really hits its stride after the ‘false ending’ at the close of Act Two, when – and this won’t be a spoiler for anyone who has seen the trailer or TV spots – the defeated giants invade the kingdom, tossing around soldiers like kittens, using windmill sails as throwing stars, and launching a full-scale, imaginatively-staged assault on the castle walls. Singer and his cadre of screenwriters (including long time collaborator Christopher McQuarrie) throw everything they can at this extended sequence, capping the film with a thrilling climax on a suitably gigantic scale.
VERDICT Far from the gigantic mess you’d expect from the delayed release, eleventh-hour title change, and a production history as muddled as the source material, Singer’s tall tale is snatched from disaster by an all-hell-breaks-loose third act. ★★★