Thanks to the fertile mind of director Bryan Singer, the classic folktale "Jack and the Beanstalk" has grown by leaps and bounds with "Jack the Giant Slayer," a smart, exciting and imaginative film that should capture the imaginations of audiences looking for a fresh big-screen experience in a year filled so far with action star retreads.
While the film is a re-imagination of the original folktale, Singer has kept the basics intact: There's a tall, beanpole of a poor farmhand named Jack (Nicholas Hoult, fresh off his impressive stint as a zombie with a crush in "Warm Bodies"), who becomes the unwitting recipient of some magic beans that, when you just add water, grow into beanstalks that reach into the heavens.
But this is where the old tale and the new one intersect. Ascending the beanstalk in the house that sits atop the monstrous plant is Isabelle (relative newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson -- interview), a headstrong princess who pines for adventure over the privileged life of ceremonies and a destiny of being a trophy wife in the halls of her family's kingdom.
The problem is, at the gateway between Earth and the heavens is not one, but an army of giants who want to exact revenge on Isabelle's royal ancestors for banishing them, and the stalk gives them a giant ladder, effectively, down to Earth, and a pathway to reignite an age-old war. Standing in-between, though, are Jack, and knights Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and Crawe (Eddie Marsan), who are climbing the beanstalk in hopes of saving the princess and averting disaster.
See the trailer for "Jack the Giant Slayer" below.
Before it was released, the home stretch didn't look good for "Jack the Giant Slayer," which got a title switch from "Jack the Giant Killer" (what's the difference?) after Warner Bros. suddenly pushed its June 2012 release back to March 2013. Most times a delayed release of this magnitude is the kiss of death for a film, but Singer's reported explanation of completing the complex special effects shots -- namely the giants -- appears to be right on the money. It's a fantasy film, of course, so the beings look gnarly and unnatural; but for what they are, are visually spectacular. Maybe it was a monstrous risk on Singer's part, but the results were well worth it.
The bonus of "Jack the Giant Killer" is that Singer (the genius behind "The Usual Suspects" and the first two "X-Men" films) is a director who's every bit as much about character as he is about visuals. The big key to his success here isn't necessarily the story -- the variation on the original tale is clever, but not earth shattering -- but the stable of terrific actors he's cast to occupy the landscape.
Hoult and Tomlinson have perfect chemistry as the affable Jack and stately Isabelle, and McShane brings weight to the proceedings as the majestic king. And while the always-great McGregor brings a lighthearted touch and a fine brand of swashbuckling chivalry to the film as the king's right hand, it's Stanley Tucci who steals the show as Lord Roderick, a scoundrel of a blue-blood whose pending arranged marriage to Isabelle comes with a hidden agenda that will shake the foundation of the kingdom to its core.
All told, "Jack and the Giant Slayer" isn't necessarily a kids movie, especially given the fact that its rated PG-13. The giants, while hugely entertaining, also have the wherewithal to be scary, and parents with kids under 10 should be advised that the film's sights and sounds -- especially in pulse-pounding IMAX -- may frighten younger children. (Note: While the film's visuals are impressive throughout, but the 3D presentation does little, if anything to enhance the experience)
If anything, the film is more a dark re-imagining of the classic tale that will easily appeal to adults and the filmmaker's fanboy followers. Despite Singer's built-in fan base, "Jack the Giant Slayer" is still very accessible and not too smart for its own good. All told, it's a fun, straight-up adventure tale that far exceeds expectations.
"Jack the Giant Slayer," rated PG-13. Star rating: 3 1/2 out of 4
What other local critics are saying …
Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press gave the film three stars, saying it finds "just the right tone -- clever but not snarky, romantic but not gooey."
Colin Covert of the Star Tribune gave the film two stars, calling it "a stale retelling" of the folktale and "formulaic."
Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed more than 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.