It is important to note that director Bryan Singer's fantasy film Jack the Giant Slayer begins with the reading of a story.
One location is a humble farmer's cottage, where a cheery lad is hearing the story from his widowed dad. The other location is a castle bedroom where the same story is told to a princess by the queen.
Point taken: There is nothing quite so democratic as a bedtime story.
With that in mind, Singer proceeds to tell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. It is gracefully embellished to accommodate a feature length. But it stands apart from other films in the recent wave of fairy tale reinvention.
The little boy grows up to be Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a good lad sent by his uncle to trade in the family horse for a few dollars to sustain their failing farm. The village is no place for a plucky rustic. He gets to come to the defence of a comely lass who turns out to be Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), but Jack returns from his mission with only a few beans to show for his horse-trading.
At the same time, Isabelle decides to run away from home, and finds herself escaping a storm, taking refuge in Jack's farmhouse.
We all know what happens when one of the beans hits earth. A massive beanstalk sprouts and carries Jack's whole cottage skyward, with the princess still inside.
Soon, a detachment arrives from the king, led by the noble Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and the less-than-noble high constable Roderick (Stanley Tucci), who knows more than he says about the appearance of this exotic vegetation. Roderick alone anticipates that the giants of the bedtime stories are real... and numerous. So up they go to rescue the princess... among other agendas.
Singer's first film (The Usual Suspects) was something of a treatise on storytelling. Even if his material is comic book-inspired (X-Men, X-2: X-Men United), he treats the familiar material with respect, and just a bit of cheek.
Singer is not out to examine the sexual undercurrents of the fairy story a la Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood, or forcibly splice his baroque visual style with a classic tale to create an ugly-exotic hybrid (hello, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland).
Here, the story is the thing. The actors have fun with the material, especially McGregor, who rather excels at essaying British pluck, and Tucci, who reins in his penchant for thespian excess to deliver a sneering rotter of some quality.
Singer does leave his imprint. The director who began the comic book movie X-Men in a concentration camp does get to represent real-world dynamics here, especially when it comes to the theme of ambition. In both human and giant realms, there is enough two-faced treachery here to give Game of Thrones a run for its money.
Pity the visual effects are not all they could be. In particular, the giants have a video game/CG look that serves to diminish the overall production.
But that doesn't seriously diminish the film's overall entertainment value. The story is a bracingly imaginative take on the traditional tale, which shows Singer has his priorities straight.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Jack the Giant Slayer:
It's The Princess Bride without the laughs.
-- Roger Moore, Movie Nation
Fee-fi-fo-fum, this fairy-tale retread is pretty dumb.
-- Justin Chang, Variety
Jack the Giant Slayer ends up being smart, thrilling and a whole lot of fun.
-- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press