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updated: 2/28/2013 8:22 AM

'Jack the Giant Slayer' gives tale a CGI action makeover

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  • Jack (Nicholas Hoult) climbs a mountain to save a princess in Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer."

      Jack (Nicholas Hoult) climbs a mountain to save a princess in Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer."

  • General Fallon (Bill Nighy) right, and Small Head (John Kassir) provide a double-header threat to humans in Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer."

      General Fallon (Bill Nighy) right, and Small Head (John Kassir) provide a double-header threat to humans in Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer."

  • Video: "Jack" trailer

 
 

For a movie all about the magic of storytelling, "Jack the Giant Slayer" doesn't conjure up much of it.

Bryan Singer's action fantasy overdoses on cheesy computer animation that already looks dated in this post-"Life of Pi"/"Snow White and the Huntsman" era. ("Jack" originally was scheduled to open June 15, 2012.)

The story sports generic fairy tale characters spouting clichés ("I'm getting an awfully bad feeling about this!" Stanley Tucci toots) while breathlessly racing from one super action set-piece to the next.

Yet, "Jack the Giant Slayer" has its charms, mainly well-cast actors who bring self-effacing humor and manufactured bravado to roles requiring them to act with imaginary green-screen playmates.

"Jack" begins with a mother reading a fairy tale to her daughter, a future queen, and a father reading a fairy tale to his son, a future giant slayer.

Instead of letting us turn our imaginations loose with the stories, Singer plays out the history of the giants in blunt, unimpressive animated footage. No imagination required. (Had Singer directed "Jaws," Quint's electrifying USS Indianpolis monologue would have been a dull flashback.)

Centuries ago, giants with severe dental issues ruled the earth, until somebody made a magic crown from boiled giants' blood residue.

A noble king wearing the crown exiled the giants to a literal castle in the sky and chopped down the beanstalks connecting them to earth.

Things were going along just fine until one day, farm boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult, impressive young star of the romantic zombie comedy "Warm Bodies") trades his horse for some beans and a stern warning: Don't get them wet!

A rainstorm later, as Jack watches helplessly from the ground, his house, containing a runaway princess named Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), shoots into the heavens on the giant beanstalks rumbling out of the ground.

In short order, the King (Ian McShane) commands his best guardian Elmont (Ewan McGregor) to lead a rescue team including Jack, the princess' evil betrothed Roderick (Tucci) and several other guardians who might as well be wearing red shirts in a "Star Trek" TV episode.

They navigate through the land of the giants until, finally, Jack finds the mysterious girl he earlier rescued from bar hooligans before he even knew her real identity.

Of course, the evil Roderick has little interest in rescuing anyone. He wants the magic crown so he can command the giants to return to earth, overthrow the king and usurp the kingdom.

The giant's army has a head, and he has two heads. The dominant one belongs to General Fallon (voiced by Bill Nighy); the smaller noggin belongs to his alternating ego (voiced by John Kassir).

The general can't wait to get back on earth and settle really old scores and devour some humans, or as he puts it, "taste the sweet nectar of revenge!"

Action fans will not be disappointed by "Jack the Giant Slayer," stuffed with battles (the machine-gun-inspired bows spitting out arrows are lots of fun), gross giant bodily functions (nasal discharge ingestion included), giants biting off people's heads and recipes involving humans and flour tortilla shells.

As Isabelle the renegade princess, Tomlinson offers a pleasant but unremarkable performance, while Hoult combines the affability of a young Christopher Reeve with the majestic cheekbones of a young Faye Dunaway.

Then it's touché for Tucci, who wisely underplays his stock villain with a snakelike slitheryness that makes him far more interesting than the bland good guys he's constantly thwarting.

"Jack the Giant Slayer" was originally called "Jack the Giant Killer," the title of one of my favorite childhood movies from 1962. It starred Kerwin Mathews as Jack, who also saved a princess from giants, monsters and an evil wizard named Pendragon.

Of course, the visual effects are laughable by today's standards, and yet, Mathews' "Jack" seems more authentic, perhaps more magical than Hoult's computer-crafted adventure, one that forces the story to serve the effects, instead of letting the effects serve the story.

Or letting the giants serve the humans.

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