Most modern fantasy adventures are distinguished, if that's the right word, by shot after shot of actors gaping at amazements — beanstalks busting out of the ground, for example, or flaming trees being flung as weapons at the king's castle — along with actors running away yelling "Look out!" or "Aaaggghhhhh!!!" while being pursued, say, by a digitally animated giant with two heads. The movies have been into such trickery across the medium's entire life span, back to Georges Melies. It's simply a matter of the method.
Lately, though, with the onslaught of and over-reliance on digital sleight of hand, the average fantasy presents every possible sight imaginable, which doesn't guarantee interesting results. Too often the effects crowd and smother the very movie they're meant to amplify.
Such is the case of "Jack the Giant Slayer," a new version of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Jack the Giant Killer" fairy tales, directed by Bryan Singer. The film is ruled by sound and fury signifying an attempt to launch a new franchise. (The ending leaves the thatched-roof cottage door wide open for sequels, should the box office indicate further interest in magic beans.)
Singer, director of the better "X-Men" pictures and the densely plotted "Usual Suspects," boasts an extravagant imagination and a welcome touch of seriousness when traffic-managing a complex physical production. Here, though, the seriousness turns heavy-spirited. Despite the light touch of Nicholas Hoult in the leading role, the movie isn't much fun. By the time the giants have descended the beanstalk and laid siege to the king's castle, and the boiling oil comes out with the flaming arrows and the flying flaming trees, it's like: Enough already.
Once upon a time there was a boy, Jack, who traded his farm horse for beans and from those beans, up and up and up, five miles up, grew a massive, threatening, viny green stalk, connecting the human world to the land of the giants, "between heaven and earth ... a perilous place," so the legend goes. The princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), betrothed to the sniveling weasel Roderick (Stanley Tucci), needed rescuing even though the screenwriters Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney took pains to write her the line "I'm not some fragile, helpless creature." She delivered this line to her father, the king, played by Ian McShane, who brought a royal bearing plus a bit of a wink to his chores in the story.
"Jack the Giant Slayer" divides its characters into two camps: Homo sapiens and Gollum-y. In the former there's Ewan McGregor, strangely neutered in the role of a loyal knight. In the Gollum-y category (the giants are all motion-captured animation jobs, a la Andy Serkis in "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit"), Bill Nighy glowers as the leader of the giant army, aka the thing with two heads.
Singer knows how to build an action sequence: At one point, for instance, McGregor finds himself rolled in giant dough alongside a couple of other pigs (real pigs, that is) in a blanket, ready for baking. How he gets out of the fix involves derring-do and giant-slaying on Jack's behalf, cleverly staged. But the movie, which was shot in 3-D and can be seen in 3-D or 2-D, never rests. Only the offhand charm of Tomlinson and Hoult reminds us that in a world of giant, straining blockbusters it's best to simply keep one's head down and do the work and try to make all that gaping and gawking and running for one's life as authentically fake as possible.
'Jack the Giant Slayer' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language)
Running time: 1:54