Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects, X-Men) directs a sometimes lively update of the Jack and the Beanstalk fable, reimagined as a slap-stick quest. Nicholas Hoult is Jack, a pauper orphan living with his uncle on a tenant farm outside a walled kingdom. We first meet Jack when he is a boy and his father reads him a story about a legendary king who helped save the kingdom from giants. The boyhood story is intercut with scenes of the young princess, Isabelle, being read the same story. The cross-class bond is struck.
You know these two will somehow get together. Flashing forward, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) has grown into a daring tomboy (c.f. Brave) and yet she is betrothed to Roderick (Stanley Tucci), a nasty man who is bent on using rediscovered magic beans and a magic crown to unleash — and then control — the giants and lead a new invasion of the kingdom. It’s hard to tell why. After all, he’s about to become king when he marries the princess. I suppose he’s just that bad. But the plan is somewhat foiled when the beans unexpectedly fall into Jack’s hands when he is in town one day. The princess also falls into the boy’s lap after she runs away from the castle, it storms, and Jack’s home is the sole shelter from a storm, naturally. The stage is set. Cue beanstalk, the princess swept up into the clouds, the giants, and the mythical quest.
The highlight here is Ewan McGregor who plays Elmont, an Errol Flynn-inspired swashbuckler who is tapped by the king to lead the exhibition up the beanstalk and rescue the lost princess. Elmont adds a knavish sense of humor to the film, but he also inadvertently highlights just what is wrong with the rest of Jack the Giant Slayer. The rest of the ensemble falls flat, and their characterizations – from one the one-dimensional Roderick, to the wasted Crawe (Eddie Marsan) – lack both depth and distinguishable tone. Jack and Isabelle’s relationship is equally routine. There are times when Jack the Giant Slayer seems to be grasping for farcical, melodramatic oomph a la The Princess Bride, while at other times it plays like a sleeping, overly serious kids fable. That middling tone is what makes the movie feel rather pipsqueak.