My apologies to Bryan Singer and his Jack the Giant Slayer, which I've been mocking for months as being the most ridiculous extreme of the "let's make fairy tales darker and edgier and violent and action-packed" trend that led through Red Riding Hood and Beastly up to this year's strange self-parody Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. In fact, it is played unusually bright and cheery for a fantasy movie made in the 2010s, with a glossiness to its production values and earnest screenplay (until a foul, overbearing final 30 minutes) that suggest in a very weird way, that Singer wanted to make a 1940s-style fantasy movie with the technology and liberties of the modern day. God knows, he wasn't trying to make something tremendously contemporary in its attitudes, or anything even vaguely akin to realism. The first time that the drama club costumes (e.g. a king's royal golden armor that appears to have been made of spray-painted plastic) sashay across the screen, two things are immediately obvious: this isn't meant to be taken at all seriously, and $200 million buys you fuck-all these days.

Anyway, the rinky-dink costumes and rather significantly more impressive but still not, like costly tentpole blockbuster impressive sets, and the extensive CGI effects that haven't been totally composited in right, and a cast made out of out one person who probably cost some decent amount of money (Ewan McGregor), people who you recognise on the spot and love that probably didn't cost nearly as much money (Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, a mo-capped Bill Nighy), people you sort of recognise who surely didn't cost money (Nicholas Hoult, Eddie Marsan), and a leading lady who you sure as hell don't recognise and have no real expectation of ever seeing again (Eleanor Tomlinson) all add up to a movie that does not seem like it could plausibly cost what Jack cost, and obviously the very lowest form of cinephilia is the kind obsessed with budgets and box office, but when a nominal fantasy offers as little in the way of enchantment and escape as this one does, it doesn't seem to be worth bothering with any higher brain activity than that. It is a movie that quite oozes bland semi-competence, too functional to throw the word "bad" around, and too mechanical to use any word better than that, no matter how much Singer is obviously anxious to instill a sense of unironic swashbbuckling fun into a script and story credited to four different men, that is the very model of a "this happens and this happens and this happens then it ends" non-arc.

Taking the plot from the English folktale "Jack and the Beanstalk" and a title (mostly) from the closely-linked "Jack the Giant Killer", Jack the Giant Slayer takes us back hundreds of years to the British kingdom of Cloister, which really isn't a name that had any business making it out of the first draft. Second, tops. Anyway, this kingdom is the home of two children, little princess Isabelle (Sydney Rawson) and little farmer's son Jack (Michael Self), both of whom very much love an old poem about the time generations past when their kingdom was attacked by giants from the sky. This is communicated in the form of a fussily over-done bit of cross-cutting that makes up in proficiency what it lacks in basic human decency.

Ten years later, the now thoroughly post-pubescent Jack (Hoult) and Isabelle (Tomlinson) cross paths when she's in the market of the castle town being a free-spirited Disney-style princess, and he's trying to sell his uncle's horse and cart, and they are both drawn to the " How King Erik the Great killed the giants" pantomime in town (Warwick Davis puts in a cameo, and whatever dignity he still had left at this point, he has no longer). It's star-crossed love at first sight, but before anything can happen, Jack ends up swapping his horse for the promise of a pile of coins and the security of some beans promised to be holy relics by a monk; these are, as any English-speaking viewer had goddamned better well know, the very beans that can create giant stalks leading up to the giants home in the clouds, Gantua. Which isn't just a name that shouldn't have survived the first draft, it shouldn't have been written down in the first place.

Anyway, the king's evil adviser, Roderick (Tucci) has been trying for some time to establish a bridge to the giants - why he hasn't yet is not even a little bit clear, given that he already had the beans and the magic crown that controls all giants - there's a magic crown in this version of the story - before the monk broke into his villainous lab. So when Isabelle ends up in the giants' kingdom, Roderick makes certain that he's on the team sent to rescue here, along with several mostly disposable soldiers led by the head of the king's guards, Elmont (McGregor). And Jack, naturally. It all pretty much writes itself from that point, and while one would give all the beautiful things on earth to keep the inevitable film-ending battle between giants and all the king's men that consists of CGI objects pummeling other CGI objects with reaction shots of actors holding their mouths wide open from happening, one also possesses not the slightest doubt that this is exactly where things are going.

As a narrative, the thing is neither musty enough to seem like a charming throwback nor complex enough to work well as a reimaginging, but that's honestly not something the film couldn't survive. Minimally, Jack the Giant Slayer could get away with a crudely literal script and spectacular fantasy visions, and bless Singer's heart, he does try. There are places where the film is almost deliberately hokey: the spotless thatched hovel where Jack lives, the visibly artificial beanstalk, the over-the-top macabre design of everything from the giants' throne room to their kitchen implements. And here, we do get the sense that Singer and at least his design team (production designer Gavin Bocquet and costume designer Joanna Johnston leading the way) wanted to make something deliberately insubstantial and breezy: I have already mentioned the adventure films of the '40s as a possible analogue, and I'll just go right on and do it again, because that's exactly what the gimcrack pageantry of Jack the Giant Slayer suggests. And hell, that's a worthy goal: the playground sensibility that the film's physical spaces thus acquire makes it feel so much more appealing than so many recent fantasies.

The problem is, the rest of the movie doesn't share the personality of the design, nor has any other evident personality of its own: of the cast, only McGregor and intermittently Tucci are tapping into any kind of matinee sensibility (Tucci by refusing to modulate his villainy, McGregor by refusing to feel even a twinge of embarrassment about his hair and his weirdly flutey accent), and the cinematography and editing insistently suggest a Lord of the Rings knockoff that Jack's chipper family movie inanity doesn't remotely support. The script, for its part, is a shambles, flailing from one tonal register to another on a scene-by-scene basis. When it finally does settle on a tone, it's one of profound middle-of-the-road banality, typified by the busy and noisy but curiously hollow battle scene that more or less closes things out, before an epilogue of such unabashed, committed dumbness, that it almost got the movie back on my good side, for the sheer chutzpah of it.

So anyway, the movie is not nearly as bad as I wanted it to be, and not nearly as fun as it feels like it easily could have been, and while it is sometimes fun to look at, it is never much fun to pay attention to anything going on besides Ewan McGregor's accent. The good news, I guess, is that it does not establish a bar that the rest of the 2013 crop of popcorn movies should have any problem overleaping.