Fee-fi-fo-fum, this fairy-tale retread is pretty dumb. Feeding the recent appetite for revisionist screen fantasies (“Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Once Upon a Time”), “Jack the Giant Slayer” feels, unsurprisingly, like an attempt to cash in on a trend, recycling storybook characters, situations and battle sequences to mechanical and wearyingly predictable effect. A disappointment coming from the usually more distinctive Bryan Singer, the Warners release will struggle to score the mammoth returns needed to recoup its not-inconsiderable budget, with an indifferent 3D conversion unlikely to offset f/x fatigue even among the youngish audience being targeted.
A rushed and unattractively animated prologue lays out the film’s underlying mythology, involving a race of giants who have spent centuries vowing revenge on the humans who banished them to Gantua, their kingdom in the clouds. But that’s little more than a fondly remembered children’s story for orphaned farmhand Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who wanders into town to sell a horse and comes away with a bag of mysterious beans.
As it happens, the town is called Cloister and the bean-seller is a fugitive monk, introducing an element of clerical intrigue into the story’s otherwise routine mashup of fabled figures. Also on hand are a Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a wayward princess stifled by her palatial upbringing; Elmont (Ewan McGregor), a gallant knight tasked with protecting her; Roderick (Stanley Tucci), a conniving royal with designs on the kingdom; and other models of narrative non-invention crammed into the script by Darren Lemke, Dan Studney and Christopher McQuarrie (who was brought in by Singer for a rewrite).
Once Jack has accidentally spilled and watered the beans, they give rise to a writhing beanstalk (an impressive blend of plywood, foam, plaster, rubber and CGI) that shoots up into the heavens, unfortunately taking the poor princess with it. Thus begins a long climb-and-rescue expedition, during which Jack and Elmont must battle not only Roderick, but also that army of expectedly foul, oafish, man-eating giants. The leader of these plus-plus-sized predators is a two-headed monster played by, but in no way resembling, Bill Nighy — especially since the smaller, stupider head owes at least a partial authorial debt to Dr. Evil’s Mini-Me.
Tapped to replace D.J. Caruso as director in 2009, Singer seems to be helming on autopilot here; the overall effect is about as enchanting as a golf-cart tour of a Renaissance Faire. It’s never quite clear whether the material is being played straight, with a wink, or somewhere down the middle. The tepid love story between genial Jack and boring Isabelle leaves no more of an impression than the third act’s extended storming-the-castle climax, which feels too derivative of “The Lord of the Rings” and other medieval epics to generate more than passing interest.
Hoult has been busy of late, having appeared in the recent “Warm Bodies” and signed on to Singer’s upcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” but while toplining a blockbuster fantasy reps a career marker of sorts, this particular one doesn’t give him much to do besides look blandly affable in a tunic. Elsewhere among the cast, Tucci’s villain does everything short of twirl his mustache; McGregor’s dashing knight seems to be restraining an impulse to supplant Jack as the hero of the story; and Ian McShane cuts a regal figure as Isabelle’s overbearing but lionhearted father.
Perhaps taking a cue from its titular monsters, the picture adopts a bigger-is-better visual approach apparent in Gavin Bocquet’s lavish production design and an overstocked f/x arsenal. The 3D adds nothing apart from the usual layer of murk, although the leering closeups of the giants’ faces, teeth and internal organs at least make one grateful the film isn’t in Smell-O-Vision.