Nicholas Hoult as Jack
Eleanor Tomlinson as Isabelle
Ewan McGregor as Elmont
Stanley Tucci as Lord Roderick
Ian McShane as King Brahmwell
Bill Nighy and John Kassir as Fallon
Eddie Marsan as Crawe
Ewen Bremner as Wicke
Christopher Fairbank as Uncle
Simon Lowe as Monk
Ralph Brown as General Entin
Once upon a time there was a talented director known for taking what could just be pop fantasy and looking it over with a mature eye and producing entertaining films that didn't insult anyone to get to a mass audience. Then his popular acclaim started to wane and he faded from view, becoming just a legend new up and coming directors told each other about. Then one day rumors started to be heard of a new film about giants and magic beans and a return to glory and surely everyone would live happily ever after in Hollywoodland.
Actually, that's a terrible fairy tale. Let me start again.
Once upon a time, there were giants. Great big terrible things who laid waste to the land of Albion until a brave king with a magic crown banished them back to the island in the sky they came from. Which all sounds as fantastical and unlikely to young farm boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) as it does to you and me. Or it did, until a monk on the run pushes a bag of beans into his hand in exchange for his horse and then those beans start growing…
A conflagration of the old stories about Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer, "Jack the Giant Slayer" marks the return of Bryan Singer to the director's chair (his first film since 2008's "Valkyrie") and it is a welcome return. One of the forerunners's of the modern superhero film mania, Singer proved with his "X-Men" films that it is possible to take fantastical material seriously without winks and nods and still produce something fun and entertaining. And that skill is in full view in "Jack."
Jack himself is very much the typical hero of these kinds of fairy tales; a literal farm boy who dreams of adventure and fame in far off lands. In fact, he is surrounded by many very familiar characters: the beautiful princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) who chafes at being trapped in her ivory tower, the smarmy advisor (Stanley Tucci) with designs on the throne, the handsome Captain of the Guard (Ewan McGregor) who is prepared for any situation.
Singer and his writers (including frequent collaborator and Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie,) have taken this hodge-podge of familiar pieces, thrown them in a pot and let them simmer while having a serious think about how it should all work in a world of real people.
And it never ceases to surprise because of that. When Princess Isabelle is accidentally spirited away by the beanstalk, Jack tags along with Elmont and Roderick to rescue her not because the plot says he must but because he has met her as a person and it is the only thing he can do. Unfortunately rescuing the princess turns out to be the easy part once Roderick reveals he has found the once lost magic crown and plans to use it to take over the kingdom with his giant slaves.
And then it gets worse. Singer and McQuarrie refuse to sit on their laurels for one second, using each scene to develop the story in new ways and giving what first appear to be minor characters like Ian McShane's weary king a sudden moment to shine.
It helps tremendously that the actors all seem to be having fun in a way you don't always find in these sorts of effects-driven films. Tucci portrays Roderick like a medieval Snidely Whiplash, and McGregor seems to be having the time of his life as the dashing Elmont who keeps getting stuck in ridiculous situations like being rolled in flour and turned into a human pig in a blanket but never losing his cool. Only Hoult comes across as a bit stiff, though he has the least to work with and is surrounded by much more experienced character actors most of the time. McQuarrie's script has a lot of humor to go around, though, and that helps a lot.
The action sequences are well designed and executed and work within the frame of the story, never feeling like they supersede it. Newton Thomas Siegel's photography is higher key than normal to fit both the 3D and the fairy tale nature of the story, flattening the visuals somewhat (except for a tremendous sequence of Jack fighting beanstalk roots in the rain). The violence itself is generally low key and often off screen as Singer fights to make the most family friendly film he has ever attempted.
The only thing holding it back is the look. Or more specifically, the look of the effects. There's no way around it – Digital Domain's work on the Giants is substandard and all the scenery chewing of Bill Nighy (as the voice of the head giant) can't disguise the fact. It's not bad, per se, but they look old, as if they belong in a film from the late 1990s or early 2000s. Compared with the CGI marvels filling the "Transformer" films or "Prometheus" it just feels … out of place. Just as a bad film with great effects is still a bad film, a good film with mediocre effects is still a good one. But an effects-driven adventure film still needs effects that work, and "Jack" just isn't there.
None of which should take away from the great storytelling going on here. "Jack" really should be the template for this kind of family-friendly adventure: fun, engaging, intelligent. The kind of thing dreck like "Journey 2" should strive to be but doesn't. If the technical pieces were just up to the level of the storytelling, it would be.