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Review: 'Jack the Giant Slayer' has scale, spectacle but still comes up short

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
updated 8:22 AM EST, Fri March 1, 2013
Nicholas Hoult stars as Jack in the film
Nicholas Hoult stars as Jack in the film "Jack the Giant Slayer."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The film is a retelling of "Jack and the Beanstalk"
  • There's a princess in this version
  • Critic says visuals are bod while the storyline is less so

(CNN) -- "Giant slayer."

So much sexier than "Beanstalk," don't you think? But that's what this film is -- the old Grimm folktale spruced up with state of the art visual effects and maximized battle action, coupled with a more playful, family-friendly approach than filmmakers took in "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" and "Snow White and the Huntsman".

The days when fairy tales were the preserve of the animation department are over. CGI has changed everything, and it's this technology that's driving the current spate of big budget live action (or semi-live action) fairytales. That, and the renewed quest to reach those Tolkien-loving ticket-buyers.

The upside of finding ourselves at the beginning of a new technological era is that there's novelty to be found in even the oldest stories. We've seen giants on screen before, but nobody's ever seen this many giants in one place. (No, not even in "Thor").

Just on the level of sheer spectacle -- and these are movies we're talking about, spectacle is no small matter -- a flick like "Jack the Giant Slayer" has a lot going for it: a perilous daylong climb into the clouds, a castle in the sky worthy of Hayao Miyazaki, waterfalls that drain into thin air and the delightful sight of a 100-foot chef sneezing into his pastries.

But if director Bryan Singer and his FX team ensure the visuals are bold, sometimes breathtaking, as so often seems to be the case, the screenplay is comparatively pedestrian.

Presumably to pique some female interest, the writers have injected a feisty princess into the mix.

Much like Merida in Disney's "Brave," she's one of those aristocrats who prefers to keep her crown under her cape and hobnob with the commoners, like Jack. Her independent ways only get her in trouble, though, when a magic bean takes root underneath Jack's hovel and the entire shack goes right up, up and away, into the stratosphere, only stopping when it reaches the land of the giants.

Predictably, once she's fallen into their clutches -- she's literally in the palm of their hands -- Isabelle reverts to damsel in distress status and it's up to heroic Jack (Nicholas Hoult), courtier Elmont (a gallant Ewan McGregor), and Isabelle's scheming fiancé Roderick (Stanley Tucci) to mount a rescue and chop down the organic green elevator before the giants invade the kingdom.

Hoult and Tomlinson are pretty but insipid, though I guess it's hard not to be upstaged by an unshaven giant with bad skin and two heads (especially when he's played -- or at least voiced -- by the great Bill Nighy). Not that craning their necks seems to have cramped Messrs McGregor or Tucci; veterans who know that even a hint of humor will carry them a long way in these circumstances. The scene in which Elmont very nearly becomes a sausage roll is probably the pick of the litter, a scene that wouldn't have been out of place in "The Princess Bride" or, for that matter, "Shrek."

Not that Bryan Singer has a particularly light touch, and indeed the script's narrative bookends land with a dull thud, but at least the "X-Men" director hasn't succumbed to the self-important bloat that mars Peter Jackson's work these days. It's impossible to believe he's passionate about this movie, but at least he's professional about it.

"Jack the Giant Slayer" is slight, but consistently amusing. Save for some questionably bloodthirsty violence, it's appropriately tailored for a teen and preteen audience, and (not high praise I know) an altogether more coherent effort than "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters." If you still feel short-changed, well, this is all a budget reported at $195 million buys you these days.

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