Cinema Dispatch: The BFG

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The BFG and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures

Directed by Steven Spielberg

The fact that Spielberg hasn’t made a Roald Dahl film up to now seems like either an oversight.  That or maybe the guy thought that it would have been too obvious for the reigning king of cinematic wonder to adapt a story from one of the best children’s book authors of all time.  If you think about it, the really good Dahl adaptations come from unconventional places, whether it’s Mel Stuart who’s known for Willy Wonka and basically nothing else outside of television, Henry Selick who’s only done four movies in over twenty years (one of which is James and the Giant Peach and another is Monkeybone), and even Matilda which was directed by Danny DeVito of all people; a director known for The War of the Roses where Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner kill each other over spite, and Death to Smoochy which had Ed Norton in an awful Barney suit.  The most mainstream examples I can think of would be Fantastic Mister Fox from Wes Anderson and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from Tim Burton, the former proving my point as the most mainstream we can get for good Dahl is Wes Anderson and the latter probably being the worst Dahl adaptation pretty much BECAUSE of how Hollywood it was.  Now the biggest director of all time is stepping up to the plate to adapt one of Dahl’s books that has yet to have a major film adaptation, though there was an animated one that no one really cares about.  Can Spielberg work his magic yet again for material that seems perfectly suited for him, or will the magic of Dahl’s work be lost when adapted under the Disney umbrella?  Let’s find out!!

The movie follows a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who suffers from Insomnia… I think, and she stays up late enough one night to see a giant roaming the streets of her town.  Sophie tries to return to her bed but unfortunately it’s too close to the window and the giant kidnaps her to take back to his home in Giant Country which doesn’t seem too hard to get to as the secret portal or whatever is just off the northern coast of Scotland.  The giant is played by Mark Rylance (who will at some point be known as BFG which does NOT stand for what you think it does) and tells Sophie that he plans to keep her there so that she doesn’t blab to the world about the existence of giants.  Now normally this would be the setup for a horror movie, but BFG turns out to be a vegetarian which means she’s safe from being eaten, and that the giant is actually super sweet which makes this situation more like an adoption without that pesky paperwork.  Now of course the movie isn’t just about these two hanging out together as the main conflict arises when we discover that not only is BFG a rather small giant, but that the other giants are total pricks who like to eat children and bully and the kind old man for reasons that I’m sure make sense to the giants.  Can Sophie come up with a way to stop the other giants from picking on BFG?  Will the other giants discover that BFG has a human around which will set them off on a rampage?  Wait, why is BFG responsible for people having dreams?  Seriously, what does that have to do with anything!?

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“What is that dream about?”     “Eh… I’ll tell you when your older.”

The movie isn’t all that great, especially considering the pedigree of the material and the director.  I liked Willy Wonka, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr. Fox WAY better than this movie, though I will have to concede that the Tim Burton Willy Wonka is worse even though that movie does have its own charm to it.  For a film that’s based on a book written for children, it’s oddly weighty and portentous in places that implies it was made for a much more discerning audience, yet it’s still absurd and childish at points that clash with ACADEMY AWARD WINNING DIRECTOR STEVEN SPIELBERG’s stylistic choices.  It’s a damn fine example of how mashing together good elements haphazardly can diminish the overall quality of a movie which is great for a Film Studies class, but not for enjoying in its own right.

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“Oh this is ever so whimsical!  Can’t you feel the quaint charm!?”

One of the big problems here is that it’s so in love with itself, that it barely has a chance to work as an actual movie.  The set pieces in here are expertly realized, but are so damn long that they grind the movie to a screeching halt and it gets to a point where the movie is reveling in its own sense of accomplishment.  From the dream forest, to the other giants fucking with BFG, to even the multiple scenes of Sophie trying to hide through elaborate choreography and sweeping cinematography, these lengthy asides turn the movie into a flabby and glacially paced mess that I can’t imagine would be all that appealing to kids.  Sure, they’re gonna laugh at the fart jokes and which are at least imaginative here, and they’ll probably like some of the effects that make BFG so big and Sophie so small, but the movie prizes authenticity over stylization to the point that it sucks a lot of the wonder out of these moments.  Outside of some well executed scenes involving dreams (whether it’s catching dreams or watching people have them), everything is so drab and dreary as Spielberg made ABSOLUTELY sure that the sets looked as realistic as possible, particularly the crappy cabin inside of a cave that BFG lives in that is believably uninteresting.

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“Do you at least have a TV?”     “You want to watch something, go watch the window.  Kids these days…”

Look back at Willy Wonka which is easily the best Dahl adaptation.  The dichotomy between the real world and the chocolate factory is brilliantly executed and truly brings to life the fantastical nature of the story (not to mention giving us one of the most ingeniously designed settings in movie history).  When we go from the real world in this movie to the land of the giants, well I don’t really get that sense of awe as we go from a British city to the British countryside.  Maybe having a more interesting setting would have gone against the source material, but then again maybe The BFG was a lesser Dahl book.  I would know because I never read BFG nor Charlie and the Chocolate factory (though I did read Matilda, The Witches, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator) but regardless, it’s usually not a good sign when a movie this effects heavy to have interesting visuals be the exception rather than the rule.

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I’m pretty sure that’s the same tree that sent Link out to find Princess Zelda.

Now all that was annoying, but it’s not my biggest complaint.  The story itself (especially the third act) just doesn’t seem to translate well to the screen, or maybe it’s just this interpretation that does a poor job of it.  Nothing in this makes sense which I guess is the point (this is a fantasy after all), but we never get a real answer for basic stuff like how this ONE GIANT is responsible for all the dreams that people have despite the fact that he manually has to put them into everyone’s ears each and every night.  At least Santa Claus has a full year to prepare for his trip!  I’m sure a lot of people aren’t going to have a problem with that simply because of the fact that this is a Dahl book which are usually SUPER weird, but looking at it in the context of this as a two hour movie, it’s only real purpose is to set up the final act where he uses his dream making powers for pretty nefarious ends (that we’re supposed to applaud for I think?) and so it’s just a giant MacGuffin that’s hanging over the plot until someone finally decides to use it for something practical an hour and half into the damn thing.  Speaking of the third act, things just go absolutely bonkers by that point and it’s where the tonal dissonance between what we’re seeing and how Spielberg is showing to us crops up the most.  I won’t spoil it here, but certain real world entities are brought into the mix to help with the other giants and they do not gel at all with the fantastical elements and it goes on WAY too long.  They basically set up and execute a plan, and then we spend nearly fifteen minutes watching shenanigans ensue between BFG and… this real world entity, before someone finally remembers that there’s serious business to conduct and gets the damn show on the road.  Not to mention that there’s some sketchy messages here about Good Propaganda considering that they’re basically striking fear into someone in the human world to get them to act without mercy.  I mean, the Giants ARE huge pricks in this, but I don’t think that’s a message you would want to even imply in a movie that’s meant for kids.

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“Throw in some paranoia, a couple of disproven studies, one or two dehumanizing caricatures, and don’t forget the jingoism!”

The movie is no doubt riddled with flaws, but there are plenty of bright spots here.  As much as I was nonplused about what the special effects were showing us, it’s no doubt impressive how well Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill are integrated into their environments considering the drastic difference in scale.  Spielberg is ever a master at cinematography and manages to frame each shot with enough care and skill so that the disparate elements of the environment work together.  Well… except for the third act, but then pretty much EVERYTHING is wrong with the third act.  The acting is pretty solid across the board, from Sophie and BFG to the other giants who are a very unusual mix between menacing and childish.  They stomp around with big voices and practiced intimidation tactics, but they’re petulant, whiney, dumb, and have no sense of responsibility or empathy.  Most of the giants are clearly afterthoughts as far as the CG used to render them, but the main giant (Fleshlumpeater played by Jermaine Clement) looks every bit as good as BFG himself.  Speaking of which, Mark Rylance is brilliant in the role of BFG and does so much with body language and his irregular speech pattern to infuse the character with a lot of heart and sympathy.  We all know that Stallone should have won the Oscar last year, but the Academy being idiots doesn’t make this guy any less of a great actor.  I wasn’t as impressed with Ruby Barnhill as Sophie as the character isn’t really asked to stretch much (she doesn’t really have an arc because she always gets her way and is always right), but the actress does fine with what she’s given.

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“So the plan is to keep you here for the rest of your life or until you’re eaten by one of those grouchy giants.”     “Well it’s better than that underfunded girls home my dead parents left me at.”     “That’s the spirit!”

This isn’t a bad movie, but then it’s not an especially great one in any of the ways that it’s trying to be.  It’s not as good as classic Spielberg movies; it’s not one of the better Roald Dahl movies; it’s not even a particularly interesting effects heavy summer blockbuster like Zootopia, The Jungle Book, or Alice Through the Looking Glass (I’m still probably the only one out there who liked that movie).  Whatever target Spielberg was aiming at was just too narrow of a cross section to appeal to any significant group.  Too long and drawn out for kids, too juvenile for adults, and not enough explosions for the undiscerning masses.  It’s probably worth seeing as something this specifically tuned is probably going to REALLY appeal to some people (Jupiter Ascending was that movie for me last year), but for the rest of us, seeing it once will be enough.

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If you like this review and plan on buying the movie, then use the Amazon link below!  I’ll get a percentage of the order it helps keep things going for me here at The Reviewers Unite!  In fact, you don’t even need to buy the item listed!  Just use the link, shop normally, and when you check out it will still give us that sweet, sweet, percentage!  You can even bookmark the link and use it every time you shop!  HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?

The BFG (BD + DVD + Digital HD) [Blu-ray]

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