Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXXVI: Clearly, snozzcumbers do not offer adequate nutrition for the growing giant


Spielberg comes back to the kid's adventure, and the severity of the disappointment quite naturally overshadows the modesty of the achievement.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Melissa Mathison (based on the novel by Roald Dahl)
With Ruby Barnhill (Sophie), Mark Rylance (The BFG), Penelope Wilton (Queen Elizabeth II Windsor), and Jermaine Clement (Fleshlumpeater)

Spoiler alert: moderate

When your favorite filmmaker is 69 years old, and literally every new motion picture he releases could plausibly be his last, you don't necessarily welcome something as trifling and low impact as Steven Spielberg's The BFG.  And make no mistake: it's the most trifling theatrical feature the man has ever made.  Furthermore, I'm relatively sure he did it on purpose.  That it is mostly very charming, and is almost completely pleasant, however, is some substantial comfort, but without passing any judgment on the great mass of people who were apparently completely uninterested in seeing the thing—presently, The BFG is on track to be one of Spielberg's most notable financial failures, and I'm not even entirely sure I can say it shouldn't be—I'll simply say upfront that personally I liked it quite a bit.  You see, when it's really working it can fairly be called "great."  The problem is, it isn't always working.  It isn't even usually working.  And it definitely isn't working (or doing much of damned near anything) for about the whole last half hour of its somewhat-unnecessary 117 minute runtime.

I should also note that I am not in any sense a fan of Roald Dahl; in fact, if I were going to claim any feelings at all about the child-hating children's author, it would probably have behooved me to have read one of his books, or at least seen some more of the movies they made out of them.  (For what it's worth, I'd never even heard of The BFG, until it turned out that its adaptation would be the next Steven Spielberg project.)  So I shall not be able to compare it to the source material, though I understand it's a relatively faithful translation of the text; instead, I'll simply pray, for the sake of all the bona fide Dahl aficionados out there, that the ending of the literary BFG isn't quite as stultifying on the page.

The movie, then, has less of a plot than it does a smattering of plot points tenuously tied together by neat visuals: one night at the orphanage, our precocious heroine, Sophie, is still awake long after everyone else has gone to bed, and thus she is the only one to witness the arrival of a mysterious, nameless colossus.  This self-styled "Big Friendly Giant"—or "BFG," as Sophie will come to call him—cannot risk this moppet blabbing about the presumptive monster who skulks his way through the alleys of London.  And so he snatches her from her bed, bringing her back to Giant Country with him, and things look tense for a moment until the BFG explains that while, yes, all the other giants are cannibals, with a special taste for human children, he's a vegetarian, who only eats incredibly gross vegeterribles, and therefore he means her no harm—except, of course, for all the harm he's already done, but never you mind that.

No, in a movie as blase to the consumption of living human flesh as this one actually turns out to be, you probably shouldn't expect it to show any particular sensitivity to a lower-grade horror like child kidnapping.  Though Sophie briefly complains, she has to admit that she hated that orphanage; and so, without any abiding desire to return to England anyway, Sophie willingly remains in Giant Country, despite her initial protests.  Soon, she's calling the giant her best friend, and going with him on his daily trips to Dream Country, the even-more-magical realm that exists (fittingly) upon the other side of a reflection in a river.  And here, she helps the BFG catch the dreams that he bottles and delivers to sleeping human children, as a sort of reparations for all the thousands of children that his evil, cannibalistic kindred have swallowed bones and all, and who presumably died in the darkness of their stomachs, either comparatively mercifully, by way of asphyxiation, or through the action of the giants' caustic digestive acids, slowly dissolving their skin and flesh until nothing was left but a bunch of bleached, broken skeletons, mixed in with the giant heaps of giant scat.

Well, you know.  It's the thought that counts.

This people-eating is never seen—and I'm afraid that in any movie about cannibalism, even in a kid's movie about cannibalism, we do need to actually see some damned cannibalism (and not just in a perfunctory dream sequence).  Nonetheless, the threat does still manage to give Sophie's life in Giant Country a slight tinge of danger.  And, in fairness, this danger becomes quite concrete enough eventually, once Fleshlumpeater and his gang of bullying anthropophagi pick up the little girl's scent.

But this comes later: indeed, a very impressive percentage of The BFG is instead spent hanging out with these two lost and lonely souls, who explore a world of magic together.  And a magical world it is: The BFG is blessed with some really excellent production design, by Rick Carter alongside Robert Stromberg, who has happily taken a break from directing his own, much crappier fantasy movies.  But if it didn't have strong leads, this would all just be pretty picturebook artifice—worthwhile, certainly, but not sufficient.  (I mean, it is great, but it ain't that great.)  Luckily, Ruby Barnhill is a solid foil for the more outlandish elements of the story—more of a cypher on the screenplay page than she ever seems to be in the film, Barnhill offers young Sophie just enough vinegar to feel like a proper person, and not just a four-eyed sense of yearning in nightclothes and a brown wig.

Obviously, though, if the movie belongs to either of its two leads, it's got to be Spielberg's new acting slave, Mark Rylance; as much as I was underwhelmed by Rylance in Bridge of Spies, I feel like he won't get the praise he actually deserves for his mo-capped giant.  For one thing, he has the unenviable task of reciting all of Roald Dahl's made-up half-English, something that, in lesser hands, could have become very obnoxious very quickly—and, of course, that would've been entirely fatal to the film, since the BFG's dialogue is composed entirely in a dialect marked by bad grammar and poorly-remembered words.  But Rylance makes it enchanting and funny instead—at least, most of the time, though when it comes to some of the dumber names for categories of dreams, not even the most sincere acting could have saved it.  Nevertheless, "sincerity" is the salient quality of his performance; and you get a deep sense of the BFG's infinite lonesomeness and damaged, scarred-over sensitivity, wrought by the eons of abuse he's taken from his loutish fellows, who hulk over him almost to same degree he dwarfs us regular folk.  This central duo is appealing enough, and the world they explore good-looking enough (minus, perhaps, the design of the other giants, which varies immensely in quality and, to my eyes, even in terms of processing power), that you honestly won't mind that, for most of the movie, there's scarcely any narrative drive whatsoever.

You may still mind that the more Sophie plaintively shouts the word "BFG!", the more awkward it inevitably sounds.

The damnably odd thing, then, is that when it finally does stumble upon some kind of plot (and by no means a good plot: Sophie and the BFG, resolving to fight the evil giants, enlist the help of a heretofore-unseen Queen of England), the pace somehow actually shifts down.  And when it downshifts, it does it into one of the longest scenes of unadulterated goofing off I've ever seen in any movie, centered upon a breakfast sequence that must be longer than Death Proof's.  (Meanwhile, if Swiss Army Man gave us the best extended fart joke in history just last week, now we get one of the most ungainly, which fails to be stupidly offensive solely because it's too stupidly bland.)

The BFG never recovers from this sudden and complete loss of energy; hell, it barely even seems to try.  It's the British armed forces doing almost all of the really heavy lifting in the climax; and the denouement is possibly even more radically unsatisfying, especially for a movie that, again, is about giants who murder children by devouring them.

The pity is felt all the more keenly because, here and there, you see the Spielberg of old—or at least the Spielberg of Tintin, who is practically just as good.  (Take the opening scene, where the BFG cleverly hides from human eyes in London despite standing there in plain sight; it's as delightful an exercise in comic stealth as Spielberg's ever undertaken.  And the sequence where Sophie must evade the prowling nostrils and fingers of the evil giants, a gorgeously extended, tension-building take captured by an utterly weightless "camera," is at least almost as good as the best parts of Tintin.)

And so you can see that the technical skills of Spielberg and his craftsmen are all still there, just waiting for their next challenge—the biggest issue with The BFG is that it hardly offers them any.  Oh, obviously: it's a marked improvement on Bridge of Spies and Lincoln.  (And for what it's worth, it's a marked improvement on Hook, the Spielberg film it most closely resembles, even if it's clear enough that Spielberg and his screenwriter, the sadly departed Melissa Mathison, would prefer you to think that it more closely resembles their most celebrated collaboration together, E.T.)  Anyway, it's above all an improvement when it comes to Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, which has grown increasingly decadent over the past several years, to the point that I could barely stand looking at it.  The BFG is still, of course, very noticeably shot by Kaminski—the number of Kaminski-lensed movies that aren't can be counted on one hand—but at least that gauzy aesthetic, not to mention the host of unidentifiable light sources blaring through windows, feels a little bit more appropriate here, when it's devoted to capturing a sense of dreamlike wonderment, than it ever felt when Kaminski applied that aesthetic to his previous two films, which you'll recall were a pair of sloggish political procedurals that you tend to watch with your arms crossed and a frown upon your face.  (Further, it's nice to hear John Williams trying again, serving up a score that isn't terribly memorable, but is varied and enjoyable and gets across the elemental emotions of the piece with much the same aplomb as Spielberg and his actors.)

It's the story that just derails itself.  Worse, no one seemed to care, because (once upon a time) it was in some book: I'm afraid that The BFG is still very much akin to Spies and Lincoln, and although we can be happy indeed that Spielberg has returned to unabashed kid's fantasy, rather than dully grinding through yet one more true story, the basic flaw of his late career remains, even in this vastly more colorful milieu.  It's that the man seems too eager to just relax; in the same way that Raiders and Minority Report are clearly the work of the same director, not to mention Michael Kahn, the same editor, you would not necessarily be able to tell that The BFG is the work of the same two men whose hallmark, once upon a time, was their irrepressible forward drive.  Moreover, going by the features he directed between 2012 and 2016, it would seem that Spielberg no longer knows precisely how to entertain us, and when it comes to cinema's all-time greatest entertainer, that's a shocking, even depressing thing to have to say; coming in the context of a film that encourages an identification between a deliverer of dreams and a maker of movies, doubly so.

And so, when I didn't know a return to form was coming (which I could not have when I first put these words to the Internet two years ago), it was genuinely frustrating.  Oh, let's be certain about one thing: the whimsy and the heartfelt friendship at the heart of The BFG absolutely save it—but only because nothing else was going to!

Score:  7/10


  1. I feel like this film's lukewarm reception still doesn't justify the beating it's taken at the box office. I forewent this one in favor of The Purge, which was by all accounts a bad idea. But I'm at least mildly interested now that people seem... Well, OK with it.

    Also, I liked what you did with your index (including your ratings alongside the alphabetical titles) that I did it myself! It took way too long, but I think it looks good. Thanks for the idea!

    1. Thanks! It does take a while, but luckily I could remember almost all of them offhand. I do think it's the better way. I mean, Roger Ebert did it.

      Anyway, The BFG's totally pleasant and I would recommend it, although this one is a very light 7--and you walk out more disappointed than you ought to be, because the ending's just so much nothing. Hell, it only involves the central characters only because they shoehorn themselves into it.

      Still, it's as close to true easy-going entertainment as 2016 is likely to produce, so at least it's a different (and better) kind of letdown than, say, X-Men: Apocalypse.

    2. Oh, and I still need to see Purge: Anarchy. (Strangely, I've heard good things about The Purge: Election Year from some friends--though, truthfully, I credit your mixed/negative feelings on the matter an awful lot more.)

    3. (And, thanks to some early autumn housecleaning, I've downgraded it to a 6, because, seriously, I think I might have been grading on a curve over the course of this past mediocre summer.)