A big Hollywood director takes the cream of British acting talent, a slathering of CGI and a handful of magic beans and serves up Jack the Giant Slayer. It’s a modern retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale with Ewan McGregor playing lively back-up to the winsome Nicholas Hoult. But director Bryan Singer (who also cast Hoult in the X-Men films) forgets one vital ingredient – a decent villain.
Initially, Jack is his own worst enemy, daydreaming while his uncle (Christopher Fairbank) strives to keep their farm from ruin. He asks Jack to take their workhorse to market and sell it off to fund vital repairs, but the boy is waylaid by a sweaty monk who needs the horse to outrun a gang of bad guys. It all gets a bit Da Vinci Code for a moment as the monk foists some beans upon him for collateral, claiming they’re holy relics with the power to change the world and asks that Jack deliver them to a monastery where he’ll eventually be paid.
The air of mystery doesn’t thicken though. Instead it blows through in gusts, which is the least you might expect from a portion of thousand-year-old beans. Jack is warned never to get them wet, but he’s barely listening and by now, fixated on Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) following a brief encounter. She’s the classic damsel in distress – that is to say, devoid of personality – and also likes to indulge in self-pity. After running away from the palace, she stops by his shoddy little hovel of a farmhouse to have a moan about the responsibilities of being incredibly rich and powerful.
Isabelle is also betrothed by the King (Ian McShane, wasted) to a middle-aged courtier, Roderick, played by a sneering Stanley Tucci, who is clearly up to no good, hence the sneering. Jack is appalled by this and so awed by Isabelle’s beauty that he drops his beans. Then, up sprouts a giant beanstalk (no sniggering at the back please), so big that it carries the farmhouse up into the clouds with Isabelle still in it. Jack is knocked to the ground and wakes up with the King in his face, flanked by Roderick and Knight of the Realm, Elmont. McGregor is all dressed in black for the latter role, but he turns out to be the much-needed comedy relief, as well as a noble warrior.
So begins the climb up the beanstalk led by Elmont and his men (including Eddie Marsan), which provides a few slapstick moments as Jack struggles to get his footing, plus Tarzan-style aerobatics. Beyond the clouds, they arrive in a rugged, mysterious land and only Roderick seems to know its significance. How or why doesn’t seem to matter and anyway, his position as the token villain is quickly usurped by lumbering, Neanderthal giants who stomp onto the scene and immediately start chowing down on members of the rescue party. The CG effects used to enhance their features is striking in parts but not altogether convincing – there’s a dead-eyed, videogame aesthetic that feels a step behind what Peter Jackson achieved a decade ago with The Lord of the Rings.
It isn’t just the CGI but the character development that’s a bit sketchy. The leader of the giants has two heads, but seems mindless in other ways and therefore, less interesting to watch. In a lazy bit of plotting it turns out that even he must fall to his knees, drone-like, before the power of a mystical ring – sorry, a crown – which Roderick just happens to have stashed in his bag. The giants only have real screen presence when banded together as an army going up against the English on their own turf in a rabble-rousing finale.
The action may be a tad too exciting for younger viewers, but it’s also a welcome shot of adrenalin after so much meandering. Up until this point, it’s the combined charms of McGregor and Hoult that hold up the film plus a few moments of cartoon chaos (better aimed at the young ‘uns), like Jack saving McGregor from a pastry pocket, then slipping a beehive into the helmet of a sleeping giant. Naturally, Jack, who admits he’s “not wildly keen on heights”, walks taller by the end and that’s an impressive feat because he’s carrying the weight of an unwieldy story.
Jack the Giant Slayer is released in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 22 March