As Hollywood continues to shake its new moneymakers (live-action fairy tales), let's hope none of them get any worse than Jack the Giant Slayer, a derivative bore of a blockbuster with virtually no redeeming factors. Based on Jack the Giant Killer and Jack and the Beanstalk, but ditching both titles because the former is too confusing and the latter isn't cool enough, this epic waste of $190 million plunders the grab bag of overused plotlines, failing to put its own stamp on much of anything. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a farm boy in the kingdom of Cloister, where he comes across the malcontent Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) in a marketplace that features Warwick Davis doing vaudeville. Isabelle's pluck—and destiny, natch—leads her to Jack's home on a rainy night, at which point those pesky magic beans take root, unearthing a stalk that sends the house and the princess up, up, up toward Gantua, home of a race of giants led by the two-headed Fallon (Bill Nighy). Preposterously unfazed by his land's new vegetation, but driven nonetheless, Isabelle's father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), deploys his best men, including Elmont (Ewan McGregor), Wicke (Ewan Bremner), and Roderick (Stanley Tucci), Isabelle's shifty betrothed. Jack makes the skyward journey as well, mostly because the script demands it. For those keeping a tally in the unimaginative column, that's one Aladdin meet-cute, one Willow cameo, two Pirates of the Caribbean villains, two ultra-British Trainspotting cast mates, and one search-party-climb-for-the-maiden straight out of The Princess Bride.
If Jack the Giant Slayer had half the ambition or vision of any of those films, the 1980s selections of which it strains to emulate, there might be some cause for recommendation here. But the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen screenplay, by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After), and Dan Studney (Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical), is a shameless mélange of unmentionable triteness, packed full of reverberating one-liners and drained dry of emotional investment. Laughably plot-propelled, the movie never gives its players time to process enormous developments, yet it makes ample time for sitcom-ish side discussions, wherein certain characters take pauses to dole out exposition, while others are implausibly none the wiser. All of this is bookended by an unwelcome, labored climax and your typical, board-setting prologue, which overemphasizes the intertwined fates of Jack and Isabelle, and employs hideous CG imagery to visualize the bedtime story that eventually proves to be true.
Did director Bryan Singer aim for a rudimentary aesthetic that would pander to a demographic of action figure-wielding nursery-rhyme whistlers? Or did he really just miss the mark that completely? The animation of the opening is clearly meant to be of lesser sophistication, but the visual effects of the movie proper are barely superior, and it's frankly shocking to see such poor pixelated creations hitting the screen in 2013. The giants—whom, in trading yucks for yuks, constantly fart, burp, and pick their noses—look like vertically stretched bits of rock from a video game circa 2000, each of them sporting pore-pocked variants of Dustin Hoffman's schnoz. On what, exactly, was that humongous budget spent? It certainly wasn't the costumes or the production design, which both appear to be one rung up from the stagey, generic flourishes of a SyFy series. And it likely wasn't the cast, which, despite Hoult's rising star (his talent, thankfully, shines through the mess), is hardly studded with huge names. The only impressive slice of cinematic awe is that gnarly, unruly beanstalk, whose braided bulk allows for a few handsome shots and at least one breathless set piece. But, really, the degree of wonder isn't that far north of what was recently seen on Once Upon a Time, ABC's exceedingly guilty pleasure, which, if you can believe it, ultimately has a leg up on this behemoth.