As soon as the closing credits for Jack the Giant Slayer began to roll, I knew I was in dangerous territory. Once again, I was about to enter the "lighten up" zone.
Every one of my film-critic colleagues has been there. It's that place where they're about to crap all over big-budget escapist fare, and they know the ensuing comments are going to play the "You snooty critics don't know how to appreciate fun" card. Phrases littered with "it's just" will be bandied about: "It's just a comic-book movie." "It's just entertainment." And then the kicker: "Lighten up."
Indeed, Jack seems fabricated specifically to engender such sentiments, so resolutely does it avoid anything that inspires a moment's afterthought. It starts by making itself a fairy tale about a fairy tale: In a long-ago land, young farm boy Jack and the princess Isabelle both hear from their respective parents the already-legendary story about monks using magic beans to try to reach heaven, and how a magic crown tamed the man-eating giants from a kingdom above the clouds.
Ten years later, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) has made the familiar exchange of the family horse for some of those beans, and a chance encounter with Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) sets him on an adventure up a giant beanstalk to rescue the princess, and perhaps try to save the kingdom.
There's plenty more table-setting required before we get to the good stuff. Because we're people of an enlightened age, Isabelle needs to be a spunky adventure-seeker, although as the plot plays out she's really more theoretically strong and independent-minded than someone actually demonstrating intellect or resourcefulness.
Stanley Tucci plays the nobleman Roderick, Isabelle's intended husband and our villain, who plans to use the crown and beans to rally an army of giants for world conquest, all while being unburdened by anything resembling motivation. And Ian McShane (as the king) and Ewan McGregor (as Elmont, the head of the king's guards) try to wring some personality between the large chunks of time when they aren't given anything interesting to do.
You'd like to think it'll all be worth the wait once we get to the giants' land of Gantua, which resembles leftover concept drawings for Pandora bought at a James Cameron garage sale. But director Bryan Singer (X-Men) and his team spend virtually no time on world-building, providing little sense for why the giants are bitter about being denied access to the human world simply because it contains their favorite snack.
The design of the creatures themselves is appropriately grotesque, and Bill Nighy does solid voice work as the two-headed leader of the giants. Yet it's hard to become fully engrossed in this strange world when the most interesting thing the giants do is fart, scratch their armpits and eat their own boogers. These are human-eating, 30-foot-tall beasts, and they're boring.
That's at the center of what's so aggravating about Jack the Giant Slayer: It's so colossally lazy. Singer can direct a decent action set piece, but his climactic battle between giants and humans feels like warmed-over Helm's Deep from The Two Towers. The cast is full of actors who can be appealing and lively, but they're all wasted.
Hollywood has spent a lot of time lately scrounging up public-domain properties like Snow White to turn into features, because latching on to a familiar marketing premise is half the work. Here, it feels as though that was all the work anyone was willing to do. Nothing about the experience should make a viewer feel "lightened up," except maybe in the wallet.