Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Ewan Bremner, Eddie Marsan, Christopher Fairbanks, Warwick Davis, Simon Lowe and John Kassir.
Writers: Darren Lemke, Dan Studney and Christopher MacQuarrie.
Director: Bryan Singer.
Slightly more fun but far less assured than last year’s big-screen fairy-tale Snow White and The Huntsman, the usually unflappable Bryan Singer seems to be barking up the wrong beanstalk for much of Jack the Giant Slayer. This long-delayed project has big shoes to fill, with similar reworkings by Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland) and Sam Raimi (Oz The Great and Powerful) proving box-office gold with audiences (if not all critics, which will probably be the same here).
The classic bedtime story plays more like a medieval mash-up of Jurassic Park’s 1 and 2 , with 40-foot high ogre-like warmongers taking the place of prehistoric beasts. Essentially, a group of misfits travel to a distant land (not an island of the coast of Costa Rica, but a mythical world above the clouds) and face-off against an unnaturally matched foe, escape, then have said foe come a-calling at our hero’s doorstep.
From the earliest known printed text of the English folktale, gone is Jack’s mother (replaced by Christopher Fairbank’s cantankerous uncle) the singular giant (now a filthy, stinking horde of nose-picking, malformed gargantuans led by a CGI-excised Bill Nighy) and the giant wife who hides Jack away; barely glimpsed and utterly redundant to the story is the golden egg (the goose from which it is laid is never seen) and the magical harp (inexplicably adorned with massive breasts that positively pop from the screen in 3D).
It’s a little hard to fathom what the director of The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie saw in this project, beyond a studio-sized paycheque. The script from Darren Lemke and Dan Studney (given a credit-worthy polish, apparently, by Singer’s ‘…Suspects’ collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie) is devoid of even the slightest sense of whimsy, instead driven forward by the promise of the next impactful special effects sequence. The CGI showpieces are clearly the film’s raison d’etre; the massive beanstalk that surges skyward, the first glimpse of a giant, the rendering of the world in which they live, and the massive creatures eventual intrusion upon this land below are all visually splendid (though, in all fairness, giant-people effects seemed more convincing in Norwegian’s Andre Ovredal’s far superior 2010 adventure, Trollhunter) .
As Jack, Nicholas Hoult (or, as he’s most often referred, ‘that kid from About a Boy’) proves both entirely likable and mostly unremarkable. Like the rest of the cast (those paying some bills include Ian McShane, Ewen Bremner, Eddie Marsan and, rather shamelessly judging by their performances, Stanley Tucci and Ewan McGregor), Hoult and romantic interest Eleanor Tomlinson mostly bide time until they are called upon to make-believe in front of a green-screen.
If you are sensing a degree of cynicism in these words, you are spot on. Warner Bros and New Line have latched onto an instantly recognisable childhood memory (or, in modern parlance, a brand), padded out the sweet, humanistic and small story with hollow spectacle (see The Hobbit) and flung big cash at the pool of Hollywood A-list celeb-directors sunbaking between gigs.
Much like Raimi’s uninspired work on the Oz story, Singer is a hired gun here and it shows. He has been quite open as to why his misguided Superman adaptation seemed a tad mechanical and lifeless (in the current issue of leading film mag, Empire, he admitted, “With Superman Returns, I struggled a lot.”), yet his X-Men films are the best kind of comic-inspired drama. Few other mainstream directors wear their creative heart on their sleeve like the talented Singer; when next offered a time-filling gig, he may think twice.