When the closing credits for Jack the Giant Slayer began to roll, I knew I was in dangerous territory. Every one of my film-critic colleagues has been there. It's that place where you're about to dis big-budget escapist fare, and you know the people who leave comments on your review will play the "you snooty critics don't know how to appreciate fun" card. Then comes the kicker: "Lighten up."
Jack the Giant Slayer seems designed to engender such sentiments. First, it's a fairy tale about a fairy tale. In a long-ago land, farm boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) hear a legendary story about how monks used magic beans to try to reach heaven, and how the man-eating giants they found in a kingdom above the clouds were tamed using a magic crown. Ten years later, Jack has exchanged the family horse for some of those beans, and a chance encounter with Isabelle sends him up a giant beanstalk to rescue her.
More table-setting is needed before the good stuff arrives. To seem like a modern movie princess, Isabelle must be a spunky adventure-seeker. The thing is, she doesn't really demonstrate the necessary intellect or resourcefulness. Roderick (Stanley Tucci), a nobleman who's both the story's villain and Isabelle's intended husband, plans to rally an army of giants for world conquest but lacks the required motivation. Ian McShane (as the king) and Ewan McGregor (as the king's head guardsman) try to add some personality to the movie, but they often don't have much to do.
You'd like to think that a long wait means that the kingdom above the clouds is worth the trouble, but director Bryan Singer (X-Men) doesn't explain why the giants are so bitter about being denied access to the human world. The creatures look appropriately grotesque, and Bill Nighy does solid voice work as their two-headed leader. Yet it's hard to get swept up in a world where the most interesting thing the giants do is scratch their armpits.
That's what's so aggravating about Jack the Giant Slayer: It's colossally lazy. Singer can direct a decent action set piece, but his climactic battle between giants and humans feels like warmed-over material from The Two Towers. Jack wanders past a golden harp in a room filled with treasure - because hey, there's a golden harp in Jack and the Beanstalk - but no one can be bothered to figure out what to do with it.
Hollywood has been scrounging up lots of public-domain tales recently, from Snow White to Hansel & Gretel, because finding a familiar marketing premise is half the work. In Jack the Giant Slayer, it feels as though that was the only work anyone was willing to do.