Thursday, July 07, 2016
Guest Post: The BFG (2016)
The Big Friendly Giant is trapped in the mud
By Jonas Schwartz
Back in the '80, after the gargantuan success of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, a string of imitations flooded theaters.
Some were enjoyable on their own merits (Explorers by Joe Dante and Randal Kleiser's Flight of the Navigator), and some were rip-offs, through and through (Stewart Raffill's Mac And Me). BFG feels like Stewart Raffill attempted to emulate a much more successful Steven Spielberg film. But no, this sluggish adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic was actually directed by Spielberg himself with all the mistakes that a more amateur director would have made.
Young Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) wanders the halls of her orphanage after another night of insomnia. In her wanderings, she discovers a giant in the London streets.
The giant (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) kidnaps Sophie and takes her back to his magical world because he can't allow her to reveal the presence of giants. They build a friendship and he shares with her his magical jars of captured dreams. He lives amongst a cruel band of even larger beasts, cannibals who now smell a human being in BFG's lair.
And they are hungry.
Most of The BFG's problems relate to pacing and script issues. Melissa Matheson, who sadly passed away last November, wrote the remarkably sensitive and thrilling E.T. for Spielberg in '82, but the character development in her script for The BFG lacks the magic of that earlier hit.
The script features scenes, like the dinner party with the Queen (Penelope Wilton), that drag on and bring the story to a halt. Then there are missing moments that would have fleshed out characters. Sophie tells BFG that she was lonely in the orphanage, but because we never saw her interact with the other girls or the irresponsible matron, the audience has no sense of how lonely. She appears to have the run of the house in the early scenes, so she doesn't appear to be in a Dickensian hell, despite the correlation between her life and her favorite book, Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.
The villains come off more as jerks in a Fraternity house than as flesh-eating monsters. The original book litters human bodies throughout the giant land and Sophie can smell humans on the creatures' breath. That would be too vivid for a children's movie but the script merely lifts that out with nothing to replace to give a sense of dread. Other than an article in the newspaper, it's never made clear that any giants OTHER THAN BFG are kidnapping children.
And if he knows his vicious neighbors will eat children, why does he bring Sophie there?
The first act is mostly a getting-to-know-you between Sophie and BFG with no clear goals or motivations to engage the audience. Spielberg films the climax like he ran out of time. There's no war or battle just a roundup of all the usual suspects in five minutes. The dinner party took longer than that.
Both leads are as charming as can be.
Even though mostly built with CGI, Rylance's gentleness and naiveté shines through. Barnhill is never cloying. She's a strong heroine with more courage than a lady triple her age. Penelope Wilton lends her regal kindness to Queen Elizabeth.
The effects are realistic but a bit lackluster. The giants are cartoonish which strips them of menace and even the dreams, balls of light zooming through the air, have been done before to greater effect.
E.T. leaves audiences awestruck because an oversized child directed it. Spielberg captured the magic of the fantasy world to perfection. The BFG was directed by his grandfather, for whom childhood is a very distant memory.
Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.