Fairy tales are dead. That was the message of a recent magazine report which took the stance that, sure, “Snow White and the Huntsman” drew an audience, but “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” didn’t, so it’s all over. Apparently director Bryan Singer’s 3-D “Jack the Giant Slayer” hasn’t got a prayer of succeeding at the box office.
Whether or not you buy that (we don’t), “Jack” at least succeeds in intriguing us. We wonder what brought Singer here in the first place? He delivered his breakout with “The Usual Suspects,” and a few years later applied his cerebral sensibilities to a far broader ensemble canvas with the first two “X-Men” movies — bold new ground for screen superheroes at the time. His meditations on the Nazis and the nature of evil stretch from “Apt Pupil” to the X-franchise to Tom Cruise’s “Valkyrie.” Where does “Jack” fit, exactly?
The explanation, we’d imagine, is that Singer just has a thing for enduring stories, whether it’s comic book mythos or folklore that goes back centuries. Never mind that “Jack and the Beanstalk” was just covered by DreamWorks’ “Puss in Boots.” If Singer feels he can think through certain narrative implications in a clever way — and this story does, even with a script by committee — then count him in.
The movie opens with a wink, laying out a version of the established tale as a bedtime story being told to both a medieval commoner boy and a young princess. Once upon a time there were some magic beans, and a gargantuan beanstalk, and fee-fi-fo-fumming giants, and it all turned bad, so a brave king cut off the access route, and the beans were buried like Indiana Jones artifacts. But that’s just a legend. Or is it?
Ten years on, Jack (Nicholas Hoult, of “Warm Bodies” and the Singer-produced “X-Men: First Class”) has grown into an earnest, leather-hoodied young farmer. He’s a likable sort who’ll do his best to defend a damsel in distress (Eleanor Tomlinson), not even realizing she’s Princess Isabelle. The adventuresome princess is prone to go AWOL here and there, distressed that the king (Ian McShane, vamping regally) is determined that she marry smarmy, gap-toothed noble Roderick (Stanley Tucci). If only the king and his men (notably Ewan McGregor) knew what we know: that Roderick is a power-hungry cad who’s foolishly unearthed the all-too-real magic beans, and has visions of commanding an army of giants.
The uber-veggies end up in guileless Jack’s possession, of course, and then the wandering princess turns up at his place, too. We can clearly see the rescue mission that lies ahead for Jack and McGregor’s knight (who buckles swash like it was the opportunity McGregor always dreamed of in “Star Wars,” if only he’d had the material). Still, there are surprises. Characters are dispatched unpredictably, and with actual consequences. The stratospheric beanstalk is a show-stealing effects element, veritably exploding into the story, and — spoiler? — eventually coming down like some green apocalypse. And the heroes’ entry into the giants’ realm is fairly stunning stuff, a collection of eerie scenes that brazenly cast King Kong’s Skull Island into the Middle Ages.
Less is more might have been a good rule for the motion-capture creatures themselves, effects creations whose fine-tuning reportedly put the film’s release on hold for several months. They’re ugly, they’re leathery, and if the movie boasted smell-o-vision in addition to 3-D, the stink from their rotten maws would probably curl our hair. But they’ve also got those Zemeckis-y lifeless eyes, and generally aren’t as impressive as in that initial, dread-laden reveal.
That said, a giant chef character is an icky bit of inspiration (complete with booger humor to soothe any shell-shocked young’uns in the audience), and the monsters are key to an epic-scale third act. If you thought the tale ended when Jack clambered back down from the skies, then you haven’t given it as much thought as Singer.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.