There have been a lot of adaptations of Jack and the Beanstalk over the years, though few have been feature-length films; admittedly, at 1 hour, 17 minutes, the 1952 version is only just feature-length, but it counts nevertheless. The tale is familiar to pretty much anybody who grew up in western civilization, so the question of how entertaining a film based on the fairy tale is comes down to its production values, and who is cast in the important roles. Traditionally, Jack is portrayed as a classical fool in the story — naive, but good-hearted and ultimately heroic — and for this film the role is filled by one of the biggest fools available in the 1950s: Lou Costello. Bud Abbott, of course, is tagging along as the greedy butcher who traded the magic beans for Jack’s cow, and follows Jack up the beanstalk in hopes of finding riches in the Giant’s castle (in particular, the hen that lays the golden egg, which had been Jack’s mother’s until the Giant stole it.)
Ya know, Mr. Dinkelpuss, it might’ve been smart to grab a weapon before heading up the beanstalk.
There is a framing story to the movie, with Abbott & Costello being hired to babysit an eight-year-old boy while his older sister and her boyfriend are off rehearsing a play. Besides providing some early laughs — Donald is very smart and sarcastic for his age, and apparently has scared off all the other babysitters — it provides an early introduction to the actors. Like The Wizard of Oz, all the major characters in the fairy tale are played by actors who feature in the framing story; the sister becomes Princess Eloise (Shaye Cogan), the boyfriend becomes Prince Arthur (James Alexander), and the Giant and his giantess housekeeper Polly are a couple that Abbott & Costello encounter at the hiring agency (played by Buddy Baer and Dorothy Ford). Also like The Wizard of Oz, there’s a visual contrast between the real world and the fairy tale, with the former being in sepia-tones and the latter being in color (a rarity for an Abbott & Costello feature).
In order to provide a bit more depth to the story, as well as a reason for Jack to climb the beanstalk (seriously, can anybody remember why he decided to do that in the fairy tale?), there is a subplot with Princess Eloise being married off to Prince Arthur of the neighboring kingdom in a political wedding. When the Giant kidnaps the two of them (individually), it’s up to Jack and Mr. Dinkelpuss, the butcher, to save them — and incidentally get the two to fall in love with each other. The adventure is filled the usual slapstick stunts, making it reasonably amusing throughout, and if the tendency to break out into song is a bit out-of-step with modern audiences, at least they’re making an effort to make the songs amusing and they get pretty creative with some of the word choices (obstreperous?)
There is probably no rule of chivalry expressly forbidding using a catapult to transport a princess, but there probably ought to be.
Abbott & Costello make for a reasonably entertaining take on Jack and the Beanstalk, though the focus on Eloise and Arthur does detract some, drawing focus away from Costello, who — as expected — provides most of the comedy, and thus most of the entertainment. It’s not one of the all-time classic comedies, nor one of the all-time classic fairy tale movies. But for a way to spend an hour and some change, it never stops being entertaining while you’re watching it, and that’s really all one can ask for.