The current wave of action-fantasy-adventure films derive from a great many diverse sources: old fairy tales, Tolkien novels, an engaging piece of kitsch like 1981's Clash of the Titans. Yet somehow these movies all seem to take place in the same digitally glossy, generically medieval storybook mud kingdom, with the same essential battles and monsters. They offer intermittently fun and frenetic creature-feature eye candy and, too often, not much else.
In Jack the Giant Slayer, which could have been called Jack the Huntsman Meets Clash of the Rings, a beanstalk bursts out of the ground, and it is fairly cool to look at, with humongous gnarly vines that twist around each other and shoot into the air like a vertical forest. The beanstalk leads to a towering stone cliff in the clouds, where a tribe of giants has taken the willowy Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) prisoner. Who will save her? You guessed it: a fellowship of the noble-hearted. They include a stalwart knight (Ewan McGregor) and his team of royal warriors; a skinny tenant farmer named Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who's in love with the princess; and her scoundrel of a suitor, Roderick (Stanley Tucci, outfitted with hair and gapped teeth that make him look extremely weaselly).
Once they climb the beanstalk (a perilous journey for anyone frightened of heights), we meet the giants, who are a mangy set of Cockney trolls. They're a lot like the trolls in The Hobbit, though in this case the motion-capture effects are even more visually crafty and individualized. Look, that one picks his nose and resembles a desiccated Max von Sydow! That one has Questlove's hair! And the leader, General Fallon (played by the redoubtable Bill Nighy), is actually sort of handsome, at least if you can see past his second noggin, which natters from his right shoulder like Zippy the Pinhead. The giants are a kick to watch, but when they talk, they might as well be soccer hooligans at a pub. Any feeling of horrific wonder fades fast.
And what of Jack's crusade to win the heart of the princess? Like everything else in the film that isn't F/X-related, it's weightless. The director, Bryan Singer, works more anonymously here than he did in the X-Men films. Jack the Giant Slayer feels like it could have been made by anyone. Eleven years after About a Boy, Hoult has grown up into a doleful actor with regal cheekbones, but here, when he isn't plunging kitchen knives into the backs of giants, there's something a touch neurasthenic about him. He doesn't tingle with romantic energy. I kept wondering why the agelessly appealing McGregor was standing off to the sidelines. He has the snap, the valor, the film needs at its center. The giants' capture and imprisonment of the princess has overtones of John Ford's The Searchers (General Fallon acts like he wants to do something quite unsavory to her), and once the situation is resolved, the film seems to be over. Fear not: There are still 30 minutes of battle spectacle to go. This is how a fairy-tale movie gives us our money's worth today. Even if once upon a time, it was called overkill. C+