Movie studios have an odious habit of taking beloved childhood curios and turning them into modern spectacles of noise and effects. Dr. Seuss's wistful book The Lorax becomes a garish computer-animated jokeathon voiced by Danny DeVito and Betty White. Alice in Wonderland goes from curious Victorian fantasia to sword-wielding, incoherent nonsense. There's a prevailing sense that big-budget filmmakers think that we are afraid of anything quaint and un-modern, when I would hope the case is anything but. (Though, the box office receipts for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland would sadly suggest otherwise.) But I must concede that occasionally, when in the right hands, an old story we knew rotely as children can be expanded into something big and action-packed and still strangely succeed. Bryan Singer's sprightly blow-up of "Jack and the Beanstalk," the thunderously titled Jack the Giant Slayer, is an example of just such an odd success. Somehow the movie works, when it really has no business doing so.
Which isn't to say that the film is good exactly, just that it's silly and fun in a perfectly harmless, mildly entertaining way. It's a pleasant late-winter diversion that enjoys a few small triumphs of wit and inventiveness. I suppose it helps that the source material is a collectively owned fairy tale rather than a specific work — it's a sketch that can be colored in and interpreted in almost any way. Singer and company decided to go the action-adventure route, making Jack a plucky farm teen (Nicholas Hoult, exuding just enough charisma) who accidentally reopens a viney path to a sky realm populated by great, lumbering CGI giants. Long ago someone figured out the formula to magic beans and chaos ensued, the giants climbing down into the human world and wreaking bone-chomping havoc. But a brave king chopped down the enormous beanstalk — a twisting, snarling computer invention — after sending the giants back home, using a special magic crown that gives its wearer control over the oversized horde. (Just go with it.)
So, all is peaceful until, centuries later, Jack comes into possession of a satchel of these beans — unearthed by the king's dastardly vizier Roderick, played with elegant slime by Stanley Tucci — and blundering boy that he is, accidentally gets one wet, sending huge house-lifting tendrils shooting up into the sky. The runaway princess of the kingdom, Isabelle (cheery newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson — OMG!), happened to be in Jack's house when the house got lifted by the beanstalk, so now the king (Ian McShane, having fun) is involved, sending his best men scrambling up the thing, led by the dashing knight Elmont, played with a slight hint of light-in-the-loafers-ness by Ewan McGregor. Jack, of course, goes with them, feeling both guilty and smitten. Will they meet giants at the top of this wretched vine? What think ye.
What follows is a perfectly bouncy little adventure, our first glimpse of a giant, shambling out of a forest (the giants' world is verdant and lush; I suspect Singer took some notes from James Cameron's Pandora), inspiring more awe than one would expect. Jack and the men, including Roderick, are quickly discovered and hauled off to the giant leader, a two-headed colossus named General Fallon, voiced with basso profondo by Bill Nighy. Scrambles ensue, Roderick uses the unearthed crown to assume control of the giants, and at one point Ewan McGregor is rolled up in pastry dough and put in an oven. Yes, that does indeed happen, a game little assurance that this movie doesn't take itself all that seriously. There's a moment when the movie feels like it's over, all good parties saved and bad ones punished, and could indeed have ended there and been a satisfying if slight viewing experience. But of course there's an epic climax to be had; the threat of the giants once again setting enormous feet on human terrain needs to be satisfied.
The inevitable giant siege is exciting enough, with hugh flaming trees hurled at the castle and a showdown with the big-bad ending in appropriately squishy fashion. Singer does know his way around a sequence like this, calibrating all the moving parts so the action tableau never feels static or overcrowded. Despite its obvious interest in large things, the movie is deceptively small in scale. It's a tale of one castle and a few dozen giants. Sure the fate of the world might also rest on who wins this particular battle, but there's little sense of anything existing outside these two modestly sized opposing forces. And that's just fine. "Jack and the Beanstalk" is just a simple story, after all. No need to drag the rest of the world into this. Though in a charming and oddly wistful little coda, filmed with a technician's grace, the story is pulled into the contemporary era. This final sequence is a mere embellishment, but it's a clever example of how something like Jack the Giant Slayer can unexpectedly succeed if done with smarts and care toward details. Even when dealing with giants, it's still the little things that matter.