CINEMA screens have held host to enough mediocre live-action fairy tale adaptations recently – the abysmal Mirror Mirror, the lacklustre Snow White and the Huntsman – so audiences can be forgiven for being dubious about what am-dram pantomime favourite Jack and the Beanstalk could offer that wouldn’t leave them twiddling their fe-fi-fo-fums (sorry).
The beanstalk is this film’s one particular triumph. The 3D makes it a magnificent beast that twists and juts beyond the edges of the screen as it soars to life.
Promisingly, director Bryan Singer’s film mostly takes its name from the slightly less child-friendly Jack the Giant Killer fable, but the edge this title lends the film is largely dulled upon the realisation that the beanstalk tale still takes centre stage.
In the Kingdom of Cloister, a land where giants have faded into exposition-dumping legend, farm boy Jack (Nicolas Hoult, X-Men: First Class) falls for Princess Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson, Angus, Thongs and Full -Frontal Snogging). Their brief courtship is cut even shorter when the beans that Jack traded his family horse for sprout into a gigantic beanstalk, sending her and Jack’s family home high into the clouds.
Her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane, Deadwood) orders a rescue mission. He sends his best Guardian, the pompous Elmont (Ewan McGregor), and his men, along with his Chief Advisor, the shady Roderick (Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games) and Jack, who happens to be there at the time.
At the top of the beanstalk Jack and Co. find themselves in a land of bitter, twisted man-eating giants who, led by Bill Nighy’s two-headed General Fallon, are delighted at the chance the overgrown bean plant presents to widen their culinary palette.
Singer, a man who gave us something completely different with The Usual Suspects and helped pave the way for a whole new generation of superhero films with X-Men, has directed a disappointingly unoriginal adaptation. The few decent deviations from the myth are welcome, but there aren’t nearly enough to entertain – perhaps the reworked script is at fault.
The Nighy-voiced Fallon’s additional head is a nice flourish, as is the final, climactic battle that might lack the dark, dramatic resonance of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but still thrills in its own right. The beanstalk is this film’s one particular triumph. The 3D makes it a magnificent beast that twists and juts beyond the edges of the screen as it soars to life. The technology certainly adds a sense of wonder throughout that is most likely missing from the 2D version.
In this special-effects-led production, characters are rarely stretched beyond their basic functions. Tomlinson is fine as Isabel – but for a princess who wants a break from the norm she needs a lot of standard, fairy-tale rescuing. Hoult is similarly good as the earnest Jack, but the character lacks any discernible depth. McGregor at least has a character with more than one trait, but you know the actor can do so much better than what he delivers here.
Unfortunately not even a deadpan McShane and his enigmatic eyebrows can absolve the frustrating absurdities of his character – a king who makes one poorly executed plan after another and who doesn’t even recognise the sound of his own alarm bell.
Nighy shines as the voice behind Fallon, and the film only really gets interesting when it centres on the dissention in his ranks. Tucci seems to enjoy bringing pantomime villainry to the big screen with his scheming Roderick, but hardly offers anything new beyond the usual boo-hiss on-stage baddie.
With its hokey faux-Medieval setting, hammy villains and McGregor’s teased facial hair the film never really loses its association with the painted backdrop of the pantomime. It isn’t that the production values feel particularly cheap (not with a $195,000,000 budget, anyway) but there is more than a hint of cartoonish farce about the whole film that not even man-eating giants can offset.
Speaking of which, the CG behemoths are curiously shoddy for a film with such a high budget. While extreme close ups provide a breath-taking level of detail, for the most part the giants never quite seem real enough to be truly satisfying – or particularly terrifying. Still, this is definitely one for the kids: for a film with such a high death count, it’s relatively bloodless.
Don’t expect another Singer genre renovation. His film is as earnest as its protagonist, but lacks depth and is light entertainment at best.
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