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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, April 20, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Nicholas Hoult prepares to battles giants in "Jack the Giant Slayer," in theaters now.

Cool beans: "Jack the Giant Slayer" is flawed yet old-fashioned fun


If you ever need a good example of the money-grubbing, disconnected thought process of Hollywood executives, just look at 2010's "Alice in Wonderland." The movie made a lot of money, mainly due to the post-"Avatar" 3-D hype (the presence of Johnny Depp always helps, too), but no one particularly likes it, myself included.

Never mind that fact, though. Disney now throws "from the producer/director/best boy grip/etc. of 'Alice in Wonderland'" on anything they can, and audiences have been treated to several re-imagined versions of classic tales – "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," "Snow White and the Huntsman" – in the hopes of recapturing the Burton hit's box office glory.

These new adaptations have brought modern grittiness, elaborate special effects and rip-roaring Hollywood battle sequences to their respective classic tales. But in the process, they've all left out one crucial element: an earnest sense of adventure. All, save for "Jack the Giant Slayer," director Bryan Singer's entertaining fantasy action adventure that doesn't forget the word that comes after action.

Nicholas Hoult ("Warm Bodies") plays the title character, a poor farmhand who trades his horse to a fugitive monk for some magical beans. He brings the mystical legumes home, much to the chagrin of his grumpy uncle. As luck would have it, the kingdom's adventure-hungry princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), using Jack's house as a shelter from a rainstorm, is far more impressed. The two coyly hit it off, but the beans go into action, growing into a massive beanstalk that takes the princess up into the clouds. Some guys just can't get a break.

The smitten Jack volunteers joins a band of knights, including the heroic Ewan McGregor and the obviously evil Stanley Tucci – you can tell he's evil because he has a gap-toothed grin, and as with most fairy tales, physical imperfection equals villainy – to climb the stalk and bring back the princess. The king (Ian McShane from "Deadwood," sporting an unfortunate suit of golden armor than makes him look like a royal oompa loompa) nervously watches from the ground.

Just like the classic story, the adventurers discover a whole new world above the clouds, inhabited by raging unkempt giants and their two-headed leader (Bill Nighy, effectively pulling out the evil drawl he used for Davy Jones in "Pirates of the Caribbean"). The vengeful beasts have more on their mind than simply grinding bones and making bread. Instead, they plan to use the beanstalk to invade the planet and reclaim the land under the clouds.

The giants' first on-screen appearance – a rainy confrontation near a pond – is a perfect example of why the film works. Singer doesn't do much showy, but he paces the scene well, builds tension and creates a thrilling display of our grumbling villains. The rest of "Jack the Giant Slayer" plays much the same way. The action moments, such as the giants' intense charge on the kingdom, are exciting, and thankfully filmed and edited with clarity – not chaos – in mind.

The characters are admittedly thinly drawn – a description of Jack or the princess begins and ends with "wants adventure" – but the actors wring the most out of them as possible. Hoult's breakout has been a long time coming (both "Warm Bodies" and "Jack the Giant Slayer" were delayed), but he's proven himself to be a likeable and engaging performer. Put in a blander actor – say Taylor Kitsch – in the role, and the result would be a far less successful film – say "John Carter."

Tucci and McGregor provide entertaining supporting turns as well. Neither are particularly depth-filled roles, but they're fun to watch – especially Tucci, who chews just enough into the scenery and the sillier aspects of his gap-toothed goon.

It's the giants, however, who end up leaving the biggest impact (groan). As the adventure goes further into the giants' lair, "Jack the Giant Slayer" comes alive, revealing a whole mess of intimidating and interestingly designed oafs. They have their own political motivations as well, including an obvious rivalry between Nighy's leader and his lead peon that adds intrigue to our hulking villains.

Plus, there's something about these colossi and their over-sized world that taps into the feeling of childhood adventures and exploration. It just feels right.

There are nitpicks to be had with Singer's film. The script sometimes feels uncertain of its audience, resulting in a farting giant awkwardly sharing screen time in the same movie as multiple chomped human heads and intense sequences. The visual effects won't have "Life of Pi" shaking in its boots either. The big set piece elements – the giants and the beanstalk – are passable, but an animated prologue falls in between stylized and realistic, and as a result just looks shoddy.

Unlike its fellow fairy tale re-imaginings, however, "Jack the Giant Slayer" isn't trying to impress anyone with its flashy visual theatrics or self-inflated sense of modern edginess. Singer's movie simply delivers an old-fashioned adventure that's well made and engagingly told, and considering the state of most blockbusters, that's a pleasure in itself.

Unfortunately, the next time most people read about "Jack the Giant Slayer," it'll likely be about the film's dubious place as one of Hollywood's biggest bombs. For some foolish reason, the movie cost $195 million to make and was slotted for a March release, not exactly a time of year when you normally make $200 million back. It's too bad because it's a fairly charming feature that doesn't deserve the horrible legacy it has coming.



Theaters and showtimes for Jack the Giant Slayer
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