Thursday, February 28, 2013

Beanstalk scales few new heights

Jack the Giant Slayer comes up short on magic.
Fee Fi, Ho Hum!
That pretty much sums up my response to Jack The Giant Slayer. This spiffed-up retelling of the Jack and Beanstalk fairy tale boasts a strong cast, a host of giants (one with two heads), a spunky princess and a beanstalk capable of putting Giant Redwoods to shame.

Director Bryan Singer, who tried to restart the Superman franchise with 2006's regrettable Superman Returns;but who has done better with the X-Men movies, seems to be looking for another franchise. In the process, Singer turns a fairy tale into a Medieval adventure (in 3-D, of course) that tries for mythic reach with a beanstalk that connects to a mysterious region where giants have dwelled since being banished from Earth.

Exactly how a land full of cliffs, rocks and forests remains suspended five miles above the Earth qualifies as a mystery, but why quibble about the laws of gravity in a fairy tale?

The appealingly modest Nicholas Hoult portrays Jack, a poor lad who's sent to market to sell his uncle's horse. Jack winds up trading the slightly emaciated horse for a handful of beans that results in the skyward growth of the mythic beanstalk, an impressive enough CGI creation.

In this sometimes awkwardly structured telling of a familiar tale, Jack must climb the beanstalk to rescue Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson). Jack meets the princess in the town market, where she's trying to escape the overly regulated confines of the palace. On a later such foray, the princess winds up being transported (via beanstalk) to the land of the giants.

To accomplish his rescue mission, Jack joins a search party dispatched by King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), Isabelle's father. The courageous Elmont (Ewan McGregor), a knight in Brahmwell's court, leads the expedition, which is joined by Isabelle's conniving finance, the melodramatically duplicitous Roderick (Stanley Tucci).

The movie begins by introducing us to parallel stories, one about Jack as a young boy, and the other about Isabelle, as a girl. Both characters lose their loving mothers. To add to Jack's misery, he also loses his father. He's then pressed into farm labor by the uncle (Christopher Fairbank) who takes him in.

Last seen the surprisingly engaging Warm Bodies, Hoult proves well-cast as a young man who falls for a princess who's far above him in social station. Jack's farm-boy status isn't the only obstacle to love: Isabelle's father has promised his resistant daughter to Tucci's Roderick.

After a few adventurers fall by the wayside, the rescue party reaches the land of the giants -- and the movie tries to whip up some menace. Bill Nighy (with a stop-action assist) portrays the evil General Fallon, who not only has a malicious head on his shoulder; he's got two. A character listed only as General Fallon's Small Head resides on Fallon's right shoulder and is voiced by John Kassir.
The rest of the giant crew looks appropriately motley. But this gaggle of Shreks gone bad doesn't inspire much real fear -- unless you happen to be very young, and although the giants (all male) feed on humans, I don't remember much gore.

I do, however, recall what felt like a excessively protracted finale. Singer builds toward a big battle sequence that takes place long after the movie's central conflict has been resolved. The movie's tumultuous ending plays like a special-effects add-on in which the destructive giants stage an earthly comeback, hoping to dine on lots of human prey.

Aside from a scene in which a haggard, nose-picking giant gives new meaning to the idea of "pigs in a blanket," Jack seems to be caught in an uncertain limbo: It's neither totally serious nor a major goof.

Bit by bit, Jack is seldom awful, but taken as a whole, the movie's too easy to shrug off. Maybe that's because Jack the Giant Slayer has been engineered for a blockbuster-sized splash this familiar story can't deliver.

No matter how much tinkering has been done to a classic tale, Jack seldom seems nimble or quick. But wait, that's a whole other Jack. As yet, no word on whether Hollywood plans to turn nursery rhymes into action adventures, but in these days of diminished expectation, I wouldn't rule it out.

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