The beanstalk has been eliminated from the title of this version of Jack and the adventure that happens when he brings home magic beans, and we have to wait a hell of a long time to see it. When padding out a children's fairy tale to become an epic, CGI-heavy film, you've got to add some story in there somehow, and in its opening act Jack slides painfully from animated recreation of the giant legends to meet-cute between our hero and heroine to the political instability of a kingdom that doesn't exist.
Even when the beanstalk erupts, and Jack (dewy and engaging Nicholas Hoult) joins a rescue party to rescue the pretty princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) who's trapped atop it, director Bryan Singer can't quite wrap his arms around this wily revisionist fairy tale. Only when those titular giants emerge, miraculous creations of motion-capture and imagination, do Jack the movie and Jack the person seem to find their purpose, spinning a children's film with surprising violence and even more goofy humor, a fairly standard-issue fantasy with just enough sparks of wit that show someone cared enough to make it better.
That's not necessarily what I'd hoped for from Singer, who's spent the the four years since the muddled release of his terrific film Valkyrie working on this and overseeing the X-Men universe. Though Jack works with some excellent moments of tension-- like when Jack and his princess love are on the verge of being cooked into a giant pie-- it's not nearly the high wire expertise Singer has shown in the past, and the grinding mechanics of the script credited to four different people keeps the film leaden for far too long. A movie that gets good only after 45 minutes is a tough sit, but Jack only manages to become OK-- a hard sell both to the kids it's aimed at and the parents who might know Singer is capable of better.
Jack isn't as chaotic as Clash of the Titans and not nearly as self-serious as John Carter, which at least puts it ahead of some of its fellow early-spring fantasy competition. And its bright spots are often remarkable, like the swashbuckling Errol Flynn-style performance from Ewan MacGregor as the head of the rescue party, or Stanley Tucci as the princess's sniveling intended, with his own secret plans for how to rule the kingdom. When the rescue party begins the men-- of course they're all men-- are an unruly gaggle of about a dozen, and only after about half of them literally fall off the beanstalk is it possible to figure out group dynamics (Eddie Marsan is in there somewhere, but has a hard time breaking out of the pack). And though it's hard to to sense the love connection between Jack and Princess Isabelle that sends him clambering up that beanstalk, once they're reunited they have a nice thing going on. It's a shame the adventuresome princess barely gets to be a part of the actual action, but with so much else going on in the plot, it's almost a relief to have one less story to deal with.
The giants, and especially a motion-capture Bill Nighy as the leader Fallon, are a mighty impressive CGI creation, covered in all kinds of weird warts and growths and, on one of them at least, a second head. Shooting much of the film outdoors allows the giants to feel even more authentic, though parents might find that realism a bit too intense for kids. In an effort to balance that intensity Jack is crammed with silly humor, leaving it in an odd middle-ground between straight-up family adventure and a more familiar fantasy cribbed from Lord of the Rings. It's a strange hybrid, and not entirely a successful one, but hey, at least it's trying something different.