The revamped-fairy-tale genre seems to have run its course. The endless Shrek films are distant bad memories, and last year delivered two — two! — Snow White duds. So it was with some trepidation that I headed out for Jack the Giant Slayer, Bryan Singer's adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk."
Despite a clunky framing device in which the classic story is read to children, this was a fairy-tale re-boot that mostly worked. The film expands the narrative, turning the relatively simple tale into a multi-character action-adventure comedy. There's humor, but none of the wink-wink snark that makes other recent revamps feel so pandering.
Our hero is the gangly farm boy named Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who trades a horse for some magic beans — one of which sprouts and grows straight up into the sky, beyond the clouds. Caught up in the super-sized, fast-growing stalk is Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who was visiting Jack's hovel on a seeing-how-the-people-live mission.
So, the princess gets stuck topside, which is ruled by nasty giants just looking for a fresh excuse to come back down to earth and snack on their favorite food: people. The king (Ian McShane) sets up a posse to retrieve his daughter. There's the good guy (Ewan McGregor), the scheming bad guy (Stanley Tucci) and assorted red shirts who are destined to be dinner. Also along for the climb is Jack, making his first quest.
The giants are big, dirty and grumpy, and their obvious CGI-ness made them less fearsome. (They're just made up of harmless 1s and 0s.) The story moves quickly through the rescue, with one especially amusing side bit in which McGregor nearly meets his end as a savory pastry.
But, at nearly two hours, Jack is at least 20 minutes too long. Given its slim material, all the film's components – from intro to beanstalk adventure to climax – could have been tightened up. As it is, the story comes to a convenient stopping point — and then a huge, noisy battle breaks out. (If you spring for the 3-D glasses, the last reel is especially busy.)
Jack is helped immeasurably by the employment of good actors, who have the capacity to deliver the silly seriously. (The giants leader is voiced by that perennial scene-stealer Bill Nighy.) I once said I'd watch Ian McShane in anything, so I guess that includes him clumping around in gold-plated armor and staring balefully at a very, very, very big plant.