Once upon a time there was a director named Bryan. Boyish and bright eyed, he wove fantastical tales on a screen made of silver. But as Bryan began to grow older, a funny thing started to happen. In order to draw inspiration, he reached deeper and deeper into the past. At first it was stories from modern-day dream weavers, tales of good versus evil featuring historical villains and contemporary titans. Selling concessions by the ton and soda by the gallon, Bryan gradually sacrificed substance for spectacle until his greatest fans became his harshest critics. By the time Bryan became a man, a glance back at his body of work revealed something curious and troubling: His tales had become too derivative, and his once fiery vision had become but a flicker. Nevertheless, he soldiered on, looking back more than 200 years for a tale to thrill the masses, who seemed to grow more cynical with each passing minute. It was a story that had been told countless times before, by legions of weary parents and armies of talented artists. It followed the journey of a brave young farm boy who fell in love with a beautiful princess and embarked on an amazing journey into a land of giants high above the clouds. But alas -- the story had become too familiar, and few could be bothered to care, and Bryan's happily ever after seemed to slip out of reach because the only ones who saw it did so on a dare.
As a young child, Jack marveled at stories of the noble King Erik and his battles against malevolent giants. Years later, when Jack (Nicholas Hoult) comes into possession of some magical beans stolen from King Brahmwell's trusted Lord Chancellor Roderick (Stanley Tucci), who is set to marry Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), the poor farm boy has no idea that he will soon follow in King Erik's legendary footsteps. Meanwhile, Isabelle pleads with her father not to marry her off to Roderick, who is secretly plotting to seize the throne. Fleeing from the castle after her father refuses to call off the wedding, she finds herself caught in a storm and seeks shelter at Jack's farmhouse. When one of the magical beans comes into contact with the rain, it sprouts a towering stalk that reaches up to the land of giants that exists between heaven and earth. Despite his bravest attempts to save the princess, she is lifted up along with his house as Jack falls back to the ground. The following morning, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) and his men discover Jack unconscious by the beanstalk, and form a rescue crew consisting of Roderick, his sniveling servant Wicke (Ewen Bremner), fearless soldier Crawe (Eddie Marsan), and Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the leader of the king's guard. Ascending into the clouds, the group find their efforts to save Princess Isabelle thwarted when Roderick uses a crown forged from the hearts of giants to become their unchallenged ruler. Now, as Roderick prepares to lead the towering titans back down to earth, where they will first destroy the kingdom before claiming the entire world, it's up to Jack to save Princess Isabelle and prevent the greatest disaster ever to befall mankind.
Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer is the kind of escapist adventure that exists in that treacherous cinematic no-man's-land between child-friendly fantasy and gruesome adult spectacle. Although the efficient script by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney moves at a satisfying pace while sticking closely to the original tale, it's difficult to discern whether we're supposed to fear the grotesque giants or laugh at them as they gobble humans up whole one moment and eat their own boogers the next. Meanwhile, the frequent attempts to display some storytelling serendipity quickly grow tiresome, and despite Singer's best efforts to dazzle with freewheeling camera work and spectacular special effects, the end product ends up looking surprisingly cheap. The talented cast are certainly game: Hoult makes a passable hero, McShane strikes a noble posture as the king, McGregor is obviously having a blast, and his old Trainspotting co-star Bremner pulls faces that even a Disney animator would be hard-pressed to top. It's also fun to watch Tucci embrace his diabolical side, though he's eventually overshadowed by the very giants he seeks to control.
By the time the giants descend and all hell breaks loose, Singer and company have actually managed to hit a satisfying stride with the story, and the final showdown between man and monster serves up some genuine thrills. In the end, however, Jack the Giant Slayer feels too compromised to be truly memorable -- like a film created by a conservative committee rather than a director with real vision. By the time Jack and Princess Isabelle are tucking their children into bed and passing their story on to the next generation, it's hard not to wonder how far back Singer is willing to go in order to avoid telling a new story. Perhaps the Epic of Gilgamesh would pose a suitable challenge for him, if Peter Jackson doesn't get to it first.