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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE: |
. "Jack the Giant Slayer"

The English fairy tale, "Jack and the Beanstalk" is twisted into this grand adventure fantasy by a great leap of adaptation freedom for the benefit of the expectations of a wide audience of ticket buyers and the studio's bottom line. Pretty much gone is the fable that teaches young Brits that greed and thievery pay off when your victim is a giant ogre. If only the giants in this version weren't so UGLY!

The classic tale advances the notion that there's another world in the sky where a giant lives. That's giant, as in singular, and the big guy is called an ogre by his own wife. He's the sort of ogre who, when he gets home from a busy day in the swamps (presumably), is expecting a meal, pronto.

The young Jack (Nicholas Hoult) of this tale, on the other hand, grew up in the kingdom of Cloister on the legend of King Erik who slayed the giants of Gantua, (yet another Jack fable) and he's pumped up with possibilities. When his mum sends him into the city to sell their farm's only horse in order to survive, he comes across a well-dressed young lady being molested by street thugs.

He proceeds to chase the hoodlums off. The damsel is thankful to her rescuer; her rescuer is enamored of her. The romance begins. Except that she's Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), King Brahmwell's (Ian McShane) fetching daughter. The Princess has a tendency to do independent, unsafe things, like stealing out of the castle alone at night and running into people, like Jack, who are well below her station. This will have consequences.

Somewhat simultaneously, Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the King's sly advisor, becomes aware that a monk has robbed him of the ancient magic beans that he's held hidden for a very long time and sends the palace guards after the thief. Just about the time they have him trapped in the city square, Jack, leading his horse, runs into the fleeing fugitive.

Crawe (Eddie Marsan, "Snow White and the Huntsman"), the impish imposter, offers Jack the handful of beans he's pinched in exchange for the lad's horse, claiming a legend about his loot's magical properties. Jack, being an unsophisticated rube, accepts the thief's convincing spiel about the beans' value and trades his skinny equine for them.

"Just don't allow them to get wet," Crawe warns as he clip-clops away from his pursuers.

Oh boy, Jack thinks, is mum going to be excited when I get home! Well, mum is mortified by the unimaginable stupidity of her only son.

Anyone who knows the Jack legend will know the significance of beans. And, in the throes of a storm, yes, they do get wet. Being magic beans, they hold inordinate power and, once in water, spring into a stalk that grows with steroidal dispatch up to the edges of the giant's realm in the sky -- the fantasy land of the English fable.

Trouble is, Isabelle, who had just took shelter in Jack's humble abode to escape a storm (only in Hollywood). With Jack outside trying to beat it down, the cottage is wrapped in the gigantic arms of the vine as it grows. With Isabelle trapped inside, the cottage is lifted up to the land of the giants, way beyond Jack's reach.

Jack wastes no time. He's on it. And, with him are the king's knights, Elmont their leader, his second-in-command Crawe. Behind are Roderick and attendant Wicke. Roderick sees in this emergency the realization of his plot to seize the throne.

Now, Jack, climbing up to the realm of this new generation of gruesome giants goes searching for the woman of his dreams whom he must protect, finds a strange place. And, with not a single dumb ogre who chants,

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead
I'll have his bones to grind my bread."

upon detecting his presence. If there's one thing the original giant wanted, it was a tasty Englishman. Broiled on toast would be ideal.

But, here in the 2013 version of the alternate universe, there be a whole race of giants, led by the gruesome two-headed General Fallon (Bill Nighy). A charmer, he and his horde rue the day of their banishment from earth. These rude miscreants live for the day they will return and wreak devastastion and obtain the magic crown.

Thus, the original four-character fable, in the hands of screenwriters Darren Lemke ("Shrek Forever After"), Dan Studney and Christopher McQuarrie, and director Bryan Singer ("Superman Returns," "The Usual Suspects"), is turned into an ancient kingdom's fight for survival against giants, the evil of a home-grown traitor, a class-challenged romance, and a complete overhaul of the poet's vision. The biggest surprise is how well it's crafted and portrayed by a very able cast.

The emphasis may be on grandiosity aimed at the broadest-possible audience, but it's not every investment of this sort that pays off with the artistry and dramatic invention seen here. First among these is what Nighy does with the giant leader, Gen. Fallon, turning what might have been a stock character into an unexpected study in odd-ball but effective intelligence. You'll hate him and, perhaps, hiss at his goonship, but he expresses himself with an unpredictable nature, humorous, reflective, malevolent and redolent of his similarly zany, mad Davy Jones in " Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

The slow development of the romance between the princess and the commoner, against the backdrop of an ancient war and fantastical combatants, is played out quite well, with innumerable barriers set up to delay a too quick payoff. Delicacy and good timing keep us rooting for their crossing of social classes and a declaration of mutual feelings. Hoult and Tomlinson are well directed and do good service to their parts, as written.

Hoult gives us the eager youth with more ardor and impetuosity than judgement but whose basic impulses are worthy and spirited. McGregor is artfully clumsy, to a fault, which he manages well for his aim at endearing us to him. Tucci, as a Mark Strong villain, fills the role with appropriate panache, and McShane hits on all the tropes of a royal father with a rebellious offspring.

With the giants in such force, the only one missing here is the ogre's wife. But she's not exactly missed.

While much of "Jack the Giant Slayer" is anything but new in terms of the familiar elements of large-scale drama reaching for a wide audience, the elaboration of a slight fairy tale has the clarity of polished construction (it should, with all the writers involved). One can get demanding in regard to a movie of a classic on which much is invested, but I found it, overall, engaging and humorous, with wit and taste in the dialogue. The effects, so well conceived and realized for the purposes, are icing on the cake.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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