Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer,” an action-packed spin on the fairy tale “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk,” is the type of film that does a lot of things acceptably, but doesn’t excel in a single area. Budgeted at a whopping $195 million, it’s filled to the brim with stuff, both narrative and visual, but little outside of its clever premise is original enough to be considered memorable. Eight-to-12-year-old boys, who aren’t yet old enough to have grown tired of the fantasy tropes at play, will be wholly entertained by the film; for the rest of us, it’s a tolerable diversion.
In this version of events, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) still travels into town to sell a farm animal and is still paid in seeds which, overnight, grow into a beanstalk ascending to the sky. But the similarities with the original end about there. Instead of just one menacing giant living in the land up above, there’s a whole population, putting Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) in grave danger when she’s scooped up by the growing plant. Jack is among the men assigned to climb the beanstalk and retrieve her. Human-crushing giants aren’t his only worry when he reaches the top; fellow search-and-rescuer Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), who Isabelle has been arranged to marry against her will, has sinister plans to take control of the giants and, with them, the kingdom below.
As inventive as the story concept is and as eventful as the plot becomes, it’s always obvious where the movie’s going, robbing the proceedings of any feeling of spontaneity. Isabelle is established as the love interest for Jack at the get-go, so we know she’ll function as the damsel-in-distress and that the two will get together in the end. Lord Roderick, possessor of an ancient crown that allows one to take control of the giants, as we’re informed in the film’s prologue, has the most transparent game-plan of any villain in recent memory. So even though “Jack the Giant Slayer” moves along at a brisk clip and houses some decent action set-pieces, it’s never truly thrilling because everything about it is foreseeable.
The cast gets the job done without a hiccup, but no member’s performance boasts the kind of pizzaz that would have elevated the material above the perfunctory. Lead Nicholas Hoult, more magnetic as a motor control-challenged zombie in last month’s “Warm Bodies,” appropriately portrays Jack as an everyboy who rises to the occasion, but I would have hardly minded had he been swapped out with a lookalike from Central Casting. As Princess Isabelle, Eleanor Tomlinson is pretty and charming but not dreamy. Stanley Tucci makes Lord Roderick evil enough that you loathe his presence, but fails to explore any campy dimensions. Ewan McGregor also pops up as the leader of the mission to save the Princess, collecting a paycheck in valiant mode.
The closest thing to excellence that “Jack the Giant Slayer” has to offer is the work of its VFX department. The beanstalk is quite the visual marvel, though its initial impact is diminished by the fact that it must grow in the dark of night, a sight that dim multiplex projection will do no favors. The giants are even more impressive — fully realized, towering creatures. But because their actions within the plot are predictable, the beasts never feel as menacing as they could have been, so their painstaking creature design is just something cool to look at rather than an integral piece of the film.
“Jack the Giant Slayer” isn’t a bad sit; it’s good-spirited and technically well-crafted. But with several artistically inspired alternatives playing in the auditoriums next door, it’s hard to recommend. That is, unless you’re taking a young boy, whose beaming smile at the simple action-adventure will be far more rewarding than anything in the film itself.