Cool-looking stalk aside, "Jack the Giant Slayer" amounts to a hill of beans

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
114 min., rated PG-13.

"Jack the Giant Slayer" sounds like it would be another "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters"—that is, a cheeky spin on an old fairy tale—but it feels very "once upon a time." Following in the current trend of fairy tales taken to the big screen, this CGI-coated, action-oriented take on "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Jack and the Beanstalk" is never more than OK, and that's especially dispiriting when director Bryan Singer (the same Bryan Singer of 1995's surprisingly tricky "The Usual Suspects," 2003's top-tier "X2," and 2006's woefully underrated "Superman Returns") is at the helm. Movies don't direct themselves, but this bland action-fantasy tentpole with a just-shy-of-$200-million price tag lacks any personal stamp or distinct vision of its own.

Ten years after hearing about the legends of the giants living in a place between Heaven and Earth, humble 18-year-old farmboy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) travels into the royal kingdom of Cloister to sell his uncle's horse. A monk with a perfectly bald patch swaps a sack of relic magic beans (which cannot get wet) for the horse as a getaway from the conniving, unscrupulous Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), who's betrothed to Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson). Even though she's forced by her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), to marry the gap-toothed weasel, Isabelle just wants to have an adventure, so one rainy night she runs away and stumbles upon Jack's home. The beans take root, sprouting a humonguous, leafy stalk that propels his house into the sky, with the princess inside. Though a commoner, Jack volunteers to save Isabelle, accompanied by the king's valiant guards Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and Crawe (Eddie Marsan), and Roderick and his toady Wicke (Ewen Bremner). Not only do the giants pose a threat to saving the princess, but Roderick's devious plans to take down Cloister will put him in cahoots with the "fee-fi-fo-fum"-ing uglies (who apparently reproduce asexually).

Previously slated as "Jack the Giant Killer" like the Cornish folktale it's based upon, "Jack the Giant Slayer" is more of an earnest swords-and-romance revision of the story than a fractured, desperate-to-be-hip tweak. There's no golden-egg-laying hen or magical harp but the diagrammatic, predictably plotted design-by-committee script from the triad of Darren Lemke, Dan Studney, and Christopher McQuarrie throws in a chaste romance and a magical crown. The one stroke of marginal wit has a booger-eating giant preparing Elmont and two piggies for his "pigs in a blanket" hors d'oeuvres. Otherwise, characters spout off puns that fall flat (i.e. "He wouldn't spill the beans" and "You're barking up the wrong beanstalk"), and the "there's something behind me" joke is used not once but twice. 

The beanstalk itself is mighty impressive, so tactile and vividly rendered that you believe the characters are actually climbing it. On the other hand, the title antagonists are uneven; sometimes they look suitably grotesque and detailed, and other times they just look like technical achievements of computer artists. The giants are initially menacing but are devoid of much personality beyond grunting, eating their own boogers, and lumbering around. Giant leader General Fallon (a performance-captured Bill Nighy) at least has two heads attached to his body. Hoult, who gave such a subtle, charming, inspired performance in last month's "Warm Bodies" without always speaking a coherent word, is fine here as our noble hero. Even though Isabelle is initially written as plucky and adventurous, the lovely Tomlinson, looking like Lena Headey's younger sister, lacks a certain oomph and just becomes a dull damsel-in-distress. McGregor tries for light whimsy and hits his marks well enough, but aside from Tucci and McShane showing up, neither of them has ever looked more indifferent.

"Jack the Giant Slayer" can only overcome its weak writing when the razzle-dazzle takes over. Then again, things don't get fun, terribly exciting, or (bloodlessly) violent until the last twenty minutes' big set-piece, where all the giants come down to give the horseback characters a chase to the castle and do battle, throwing a windmill vane and a bell. Also, another bean gets planted and a stalk grows instantly in such an unexpected place that it's too bad the makers confined all of their imagination to the third act. It's a case of "too little, too late," ultimately making for a sometimes-rousing, mostly brisk but merely passable enterprise.

Grade: C +