‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ – entertaining, imaginative – but not fantasy’s finest

By Eleanor RIngel Cater

As fractured fairy tales a la Hollywood goes, “Jack the Giant Slayer” is better than most.

If anything, it reminds you of the Disney live-action adventures from the early 1960s. Movies like “In Search of the Castaways” and “Swiss Family Robinson” — only with a little more gore and a lot better special effects.

The picture begins appropriately with twin bedtime stories. In the royal palace, the Queen reads her little girl to sleep with the tale of how one of her long-ago ancestors defeated a gang of bloodthirsty giants who think humans taste just like chicken, only better.

At the same time, in a poor farmer’s hut, a little boy is being lulled to sleep by his father with the same tale.

Now, those of us who know jack about Jack — usually known as “Jack and the Beanstalk” — also know there was only one Giant and he seemed aggressive more because a home invasion than anything else. And his well-known rhyming threat? Remember:  “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum…I smell the blood of an Englishman…?”

That’s changed, too. Fee, Fi, Fo and maybe Fum are now names of other giants and the second line goes  “Ask not whence the thunder comes.”

Finally, the magic beans are given a backstory. They were first planted, long, long ago, by some monks who hoped the ensuing beanstalk (a marvelous CGI’d twisty tower of green) would take them to Heaven. What they didn’t know was, at about cloud level, there exists a land of giants.  And that beanstalks can be climbed down as well as up.

Hence the royal intervention by the little princess’s great-great-great-somebody.

I don’t think I need to go into other specifics; that’ll spoil some of the movie’s surprises. Let’s just say, skip ahead a decade or so.

Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and the Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), now grown up, meet when she runs away from her over-protected life to have an adventure.

She gets one, all right. Those beans are still magic and, like “Gremlins,”  they aren’t supposed to get wet. But of course they do and the stalk grows right up through Jack’s hovel, where the Princess has taken shelter.

Her father the King (“Deadwood’s” Ian McShane) mounts a major rescue effort, led by a noble knight (Ewan McGregor, channeling his inner Kenneth Brannagh) and a wicked courtier (Stanley Tucci, unrecognizable) who is more interested in power than the Princess.

If nothing else, names like McGregor, McShane, Tucci — plus Bill Nighy, lending his voice to a two-headed giant — should tip you off that this isn’t just some hit-and-run Hollywood trash, meant to rack up first-weekend bucks before word-of-mouth gets out.

Further, the director is Bryan Singer, as in “The Usual Suspects” and the “X-Men” franchise.  Singer doesn’t need to be a director-for-hire —like Tommy Wirkola (who??) who made the abominable “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.” SInger has his choice of projects at this point and he chose this.

I don’t’ want to oversell the picture. But I see no reason to snidely dismiss it either, as some movie writers have.  This may not be fantasy filmmaking at its finest; the Peter Jackson who made “The Lord of the Rings” (not  the one who made “The Hobbit”) has nothing to worry about.

Still, “Jack the Giant Slayer” is an imaginative, entertaining film that works much more often than it doesn’t.

Plus, you simply must see McGregor rolled up in some dough, about to become a Pig in a Blanket in some giant-sized night kitchen in the sky.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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