To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, there are big, tall, terrible, fleshy, bulbous-headed giants in the sky in Jack the Giant Slayer. And what would a big-budget, mildly revisionist, 3-D spin on "Jack and the Beanstalk" be if those fearsome beasties didn't somehow make it down to sea level, where a storybook British kingdom looms — given said giants' appetite for human flesh — like a medieval Whole Foods? That journey is facilitated, of course, by the eponymous Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who has thankfully been allowed to remain a naïve farm boy in this telling of the tale, despite Hollywood's unyielding desire to turn all formerly innocuous childhood icons into lethal vampires and witch hunters or — in the case of Santa in the excruciating Rise of the Guardians — a tattooed Russian gangster.
Indeed, it's one of the pleasures of Jack that the film's tone is more classical fairy tale than hipster graphic novel, replete with swashbuckling derring-do, beautiful distressed maidens, valiant knights on horseback, and characters who speak in whole sentences rather than quips and catchphrases. The director is Bryan Singer, whose X-Men films have always struck me as comic-book cinema at its most mirthless and heavy-handed, but whose non-mutant movies reveal the touch of a supremely confident Hollywood craftsman. In Jack, Singer evokes a bygone era of fantasy filmmaking in which the illusions before our eyes were created in an artist's studio rather than a computer lab.
Working with his regular cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, Singer shoots in clean, unfussy compositions that allow us to follow the action easily, even when the earth moves under the characters' feet and the sky comes tumbling down. And though there's no shortage of computer graphics at work here, the movie maintains the tactile, handcrafted look of those beloved childhood books in which, with each successive turn, some new marvel literally popped up from the page.
Jack the Giant Slayer has its roots in "Jack the Giant Killer," an eighteenth-century Cornish fable set during Arthurian times and featuring a Jack who was more of a wily rapscallion than emergent Joseph Campbell hero. Singer's film, too, once bore "Killer" in its title, until some combination of market research and zeitgeist fretting over pop-culture violence prompted a change. But the somewhat gentler moniker is more in tune with Singer's sense of old-fashioned showmanship, and with Hoult's performance — a Jack who slays when he must, but never seems driven by a killer instinct. This isn't as rich a part for the young British actor as his recent turn in Warm Bodies, but he's very likable, with the hesitant milk-fed smile of a young Tom Cruise and a nice, unforced chemistry with newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson. Her Princess Isabelle is one of those spunky, independent-minded royals who periodically absconds from the castle to see how the other 99 percent lives. On one such jaunt, she and Jack first make not-quite-bedroom eyes, at a market where he's come to sell his horse, when he gallantly intervenes after some drooling drunks accost the incognito princess in a most ungentlemanly fashion.
The rest you more or less know: Jack comes home with a handful of beans, the price of a horse not being what it used to. Then a rainstorm sets those beans sprouting — and the beanstalk itself is a remarkable creation, all gnarled, Gordian tendrils and leaves that rise and fall like lungs. So, too, are the giants a sight worth beholding, especially the dyspeptic, two-headed Fallon, whose larger, more articulate noggin is voiced by Bill Nighy, and whose smaller one grunts and cackles in the distinctive register of John Kassir. Jack and Isabelle fight these un-heavenly creatures on their celestial turf for a while, with the help of a royal army under the command of Ewan McGregor, and with no help from Stanley Tucci as a sniveling human saboteur.
Jack the Giant Slayer is not flush with surprises, but there is something to be said for the simple satisfactions of a familiar tale well told, like the bedtime stories that provide Singer's film with its elegant framing device. By the standards of today's bombastic "event" movies, this is a refreshingly modest endeavor.