It is difficult to pinpoint when and I how I first discovered the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.” It could have been a book lying around my parents’ house, or an episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre series. Either way, there is a dormant memory of magic beans and silly poetry, one that is easy for cynical filmmakers to tap into. Instead of building of a world from scratch, Bryan Singer co-opts our collective childhood with Jack the Giant Slayer, creating a world that’s vaguely familiar and a little derivative. The good news, however, is that Singer keeps his fantasy moving at a steady clip, and he can still construct a kinetic, coherent action sequence.
A hasty prologue sets up Cloisters, the kingdom where Jack (Nicholas Hoult) works as a simple farm hand. Fairy tales fascinated Jack when he was a boy, but as a young man, he must face harsh economic realities and sell his horse. A monk offers magic beans for the horse, with the added warning “do not let them get wet,” and something in his eyes makes Jack accept the trade. Jack’s uncle sneers at contempt when he comes home, ostensibly empty-handed, but Jack is not the only one who feels trapped by life. The King (Ian McShane) is forcing his daughter Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) to marry the scheming Roderick (Stanley Tucci), and she wants to marry for love instead. Isabelle then runs away from home, and ends up in Jack’s house after a rain storm. Once the rain lands on the beans, a giant stalk carries Isabelle into the sky, so it’s up to Jack and the King’s top guard Elmont (Ewan McGregor) to climb up and save her from giants.
Consistent internal logic is important, even in a silly movie like this one, and the best part of Jack the Giant Slayer is how it applies logic to the giants themselves. They’re always the same height, mean-tempered, and difficult to kill. Singer and his screenwriters use the giants’ physical advantage to find creative ways for them to engage with the meager humans. Jack elegantly saves Elmont from becoming a savory pastry, and later the island’s geography allows two humans to fight without much giant interference. The stalk itself is an impressive CGI creation, twisting and contorting as it destroys whatever is in its path. When it’s time to cut the stalk, Singer generates suspense by placing his heroes at various altitudes and having them fall in different ways. Sure, there are also sub-plots about Roderick’s nefarious plans and the blossoming love between Jack/Isabelle, but they’re so derivative it’s difficult to muster up any sympathy for their feelings. Even with a couple of easy jokes for adults to appreciate, the simplicity of the relationships shows the movie is meant for children more than adults. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: I would have loved the shit out of this movie if I saw it when I was eight.
Jack the Giant Slayer culminates with an epic battle between the giants and humans. The former tries to storm the castle, while the latter use their ingenuity to defend it. The sequence is as good as anything from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, if not better, since Singer does not share Jackson’s reverence for his subject. He directs with shrewd competence, easily defining the tactics of the humans and giants, as if he wants to give a workmanlike response to a genre that’s often defined by its bloat. With modest ambition and a relatively short running time, Jack the Giant Slayer updates the fairy tale into a fantasy action film that’s too fun to be forgettable.