A big-budget, effects-laden, 3-D retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk legend may seem like the unlikeliest pairing yet of director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie, but "Jack the Giant Slayer" ends up being smart, thrilling and a whole lot of fun.
Singer and McQuarrie's collaborations include, most famously, the twisty crime mystery "The Usual Suspects" (which earned McQuarrie an original-screenplay Oscar) and the Hitler assassination drama "Valkyrie," featuring an eye patch-wearing Tom Cruise. They've sort of been all over the place together over the past couple decades — why not reinterpret a classic fairy tale? This time, the screenwriter is aided by Darren Lemke and Dan Studney; nevertheless there remains a sense of both briskness and substance.
"Jack the Giant Slayer" is cheeky without being too obnoxiously cutesy. While the look of it is medieval, the vibe seems more current, but it's not so anachronistic as to be self-referential and subversive along the lines of a "Shrek," for example. In that regard, it actually ends up being pleasingly old-fashioned.
Shot in 3-D — rather than one of those muddled 2-D re-dos — the film looks crisp and clean, much more so than the trailers and ads might suggest. The action sequences are cut in an unobtrusive way as to allow the intricacy of what's happening on screen to shine through. And once it bursts forth from the ground, the beanstalk itself is magnificent; enormous and richly detailed, it feels like a living, breathing and formidable thing.
Tasked with climbing up this monstrosity is Nicholas Hoult, hot off the zombie romantic comedy "Warm Bodies," as the title character. In staying mostly true to the story's origins, Jack is a poor farm boy whose uncle sends him on an errand to sell the family horse. Instead he comes back with — you guessed it — beans. But they're magic beans, so it's cool.
While visiting the kingdom of Cloister that day, though, he also locks eyes briefly with a mysterious young woman. Turns out she's the princess, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who has escaped her overprotective father (Ian McShane) in disguise to get a taste of what the real world is like. Her security detail, led by the loyal Elmont (Ewan McGregor), quickly whisks her away from Jack but they've clearly made a connection.
A subsequent escape on a rainy night throws these two together again — but this time, one of those magical beans gets tragically wet. Boom — beanstalk, one that sends the princess high in the sky, all the way up to a long-forgotten land full of isolated and really angry giants.
There aren't a whole lot of surprises here — if you know the story, you know what happens — although "Jack the Giant Slayer" features several inspired visuals, including an incredibly cool scene in which several beanstalks sprout in an unexpected direction. Hoult and Tomlinson are fine together — there's nothing outlandish about either of their performances — but they do have a nice chemistry with each other.
And they make room for some of the showier performances amid the strong supporting cast, including Stanley Tucci as the duplicitous Roderick, whom the king initially believes is an ideal husband for his precious daughter but who quickly reveals his untrustworthiness and hunger for power.
And speaking of scenery chewing, these giants are fearsome and fully realized creatures with the help of motion-capture technology, especially Bill Nighy as their sadistic, two-headed leader. These are not bumbling behemoths but rather nimble warriors with a taste for blood who put the fright back into fee-fi-fo-fum.
"Jack the Giant Slayer," a New Line Cinema release, is rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language. Running time: 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.