To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, there are big, tall, terrible, fleshy, bulbous-headed giants in the sky in Jack the Giant Slayer. And what would a big-budget, mildly revisionist, 3-D spin on Jack and the Beanstalk be if those fearsome beasties didn't somehow make it down to sea level, where a storybook British kingdom looms — given said giants' appetite for human flesh — like a medieval Whole Foods? That journey is facilitated, of course, by the eponymous Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who has thankfully been allowed to remain a naive farm boy in this telling of the tale, despite Hollywood's unyielding desire to turn all formerly innocuous childhood icons into lethal vampire and witch hunters or — in the case of poor Santa Claus in last year's excruciating Rise of the Guardians — a tattooed Russian gangster.
Indeed, it's one of the pleasures of Jack that the film's tone is more classical fairy tale than hipster graphic novel, replete with swashbuckling derring-do, beautiful distressed maidens, valiant knights on horseback, and characters who speak in whole sentences rather than quips and catch phrases. The director is Bryan Singer, whose X-Men films have always struck me as comic-book cinema at its most mirthless and heavy-handed but whose nonmutant movies reveal the touch of a supremely confident Hollywood craftsman, from the jackknife film noir The Usual Suspects to the plot-to-kill-Hitler thriller Valkyrie. In Jack — surely his most lighthearted, purely pleasurable film — Singer evokes a bygone era of fantasy filmmaking when the illusions before our eyes were created in an artist's studio rather than a computer lab. It's more Jason and the Argonauts than Shia and the Transformers.
Working with his regular cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, Singer shoots in clean, unfussy compositions that allow us to follow the action easily even when the earth moves under the characters' feet and the sky comes tumbling down. And though there's no shortage of computer graphics at work here, the movie maintains the tactile, handcrafted look of those beloved childhood books where, with each successive turn, some new marvel literally popped up from the page. At less than two hours, Jack also has a sure sense of pacing and knows when to make a graceful exit — qualities nearly as rare at the movies today as 35mm prints, good projection, and well-behaved audiences. Simply put: Any five minutes of this is preferable to all of The Hobbit.
Jack the Giant Slayer has its roots in Jack the Giant Killer, an 18th-century Cornish fable set during Arthurian times and featuring a Jack who was more of a wily rapscallion than emergent Joseph Campbell hero. Singer's film too once bore Killer in its title, until some combination of market research and Zeitgeist fretting over pop-culture violence prompted a change. But the somewhat gentler moniker is more in tune with Singer's sense of old-fashioned showmanship and with Hoult's performance — a Jack who slays when he must but never seems driven by a killer instinct. This isn't as rich a part for the young British actor as his recent turn in the zombie rom-com Warm Bodies (where he also found himself swimming upstream against the food chain), but he's very likable, with the hesitant milk-fed smile of the young Tom Cruise and a nice, unforced chemistry with newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson. Her Princess Isabelle is one of those spunky, independent-minded royals who periodically absconds from the castle to see how the other 99 percent live. On one such jaunt, she and Jack first make not-quite bedroom eyes, at a market where he's come to sell his horse, when he gallantly intervenes after some drooling drunks accost the incognito princess in a most ungentlemanly fashion.
The rest you more or less know: Jack comes home with a handful of beans, the price of horse not being what it used to be. Then a rainstorm sets those beans sprouting like some unholy tincture of Miracle-Gro and HGH. 'Round and 'round the enormous vegetable goes, scooping up Jack's farmhouse the way a certain Kansas twister did to Dorothy's, and this is when Jack really finds its footing. The beanstalk itself is a remarkable creation — all gnarled, Gordian tendrils and leaves that rise and fall like lungs. So too are the giants a sight worth beholding, especially the dyspeptic, two-headed Fallon, whose larger, more articulate noggin is voiced by Bill Nighy and whose smaller one grunts and cackles in the distinctive register of John Kassir (whom viewers of a certain age will recall as the voice of the Crypt Keeper on HBO's Tales From the Crypt). Jack and Isabelle fight these unheavenly creatures on their celestial turf for a while, with the help of a royal army under the command of Ewan McGregor (doing his best Kenneth Branagh impression) and with no help from Stanley Tucci as a sniveling human saboteur. Then, everyone heads south.
Jack the Giant Slayer is not flush with surprises. We are never too much in doubt that man will somehow triumph over giant or that the brave commoner will win the approval of the blue bloods. But there is something to be said for the simple satisfactions of a familiar tale well told, like the bedtime stories passed down from parents to children that provide Singer's film with its elegant framing device. By the standards of today's bombastic "event" movies, this is a refreshingly modest endeavor — one in which the main event is the skillful holding of our attention, all the way from "Once upon a time" to "Happily ever after."