There's no sense discussing Bryan Singer's thoroughly pleasing "Jack the Giant Slayer" without bringing up that other fantasy epic swirling like a tornado in the wings. You might have heard of it: Sam Raimi's "Oz: The Great and Powerful."
With just a week's gap between each movie's release, it's a bit of a no-brainer which will assume the role of the David to the other's Goliath at the box office.
But let's drop the dollars-and-cents talk and praise the nimble "Jack" for what it is: a zippy, inventive take on the oft-told fairy tale. With the "X-Men" director planting the seed, this latest in a line of fractured fairy tales sprouts into well-made escapist fun. It's nothing remarkable, mind you, but solid as a boulder.
The special effects -- including the 3-D -- are playful and impressive, the clashes between giant and man lively and exciting, and the romance -- the mediavelesque farmhand Jack (Nicholas Hoult of "Warm Bodies") and bored Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson of "Alice in Wonderland") -- sweet, if predictable.
"Jack" takes off when those magical beans get wet and that gargantuan, serpentinelike beanstalk rockets to the heavens, leading our hero and others -- including a dashing knight (Ewan McGregor in killer matinee-idol mode) and the princess' duplicitous suitor (Stanley Tucci, kooky and vile) -- to scale it as if it were Everest.
The team is on a mission to rescue Isabelle, who was trapped in Jack's house when the beanstalk took root and sent her bolting into the sky. Meanwhile, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane, somewhat wasted here) awaits his daughter's return below.
What no one knows is that the legendary giants live up top and are all too happy to rappel down to bash some human skulls.
It is up in the land of the giants where Singer and his motion-capture animators and special-effects artists dazzle us with their creative know-how and world-building. They introduce us to a rude and uncouth gallery of giants, all colorful creations. The unofficial leader of this lousy lot is General Fallon (Bill Nighy, delivering a memorable stop-motion animation performance for his digitally animated character), a two-headed monstrosity whose smaller noggin looks to have a splash of Gollum's DNA.
This grotesque world is imaginatively, magically rendered with heavy stone architecture and a dreary lack of adornment. It's such an intriguing place that you wouldn't mind staying a bit longer. Fortunately, when we do leave this trippy environment, we're greeted with a smashing finale and a clever ending that hints there might be even more to the story.
What hampers "Jack" at times is its uneven script, which spits out occasional clunky one-liners. "You're barking up the wrong beanstalk," one character quips. Really, now -- is that the best you've got?
The screenwriting team (Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney) may not be great with dialogue, but it's got a good handle on the storytelling, setting up situations and smartly tweaking the classic tale. The team deserves kudos for respecting the story's origins, then expanding on it in satisfying ways.
While the movie doesn't exactly scale new heights, it's hardly the fee-fie-foe- fumble we were expecting. Let's just hope that when "Oz" lands, "Jack" doesn't suffer the same fate as the Wicked Witch of the West and get crushed. It deserves better than that.
"jack the Giant Slayer"
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language)
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Ewan McGregor, Bill Nighy
Director: Bryan Singer
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes