Thursday, July 14, 2016

Movie Review: The BFG

Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Melissa Mathison based on the book by Roald Dahl.
Starring: Mark Rylance (BFG), Ruby Barnhill (Sophie), Penelope Wilton (The Queen), Jemaine Clement (Fleshlumpeater), Rebecca Hall (Mary), Rafe Spall (Mr. Tibbs), Bill Hader (Bloodbottler), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Maidmasher / Cook), Adam Godley (Manhugger / Lout #1), Michael Adamthwaite (Butcher Boy / Danish Driver), Daniel Bacon (Bonecruncher / Lout #2), Jonathan Holmes (Childchewer / Pub Landlord), Chris Gibbs (Gizzardgulper / Late Night Walker), Paul Moniz de Sa (Meatdripper / Lout #3), Marilyn Norry (Matron). 
It may seem silly to say, but there are times when I think that Steven Spielberg is underrated. There is a certain type of film lover who sees Spielberg as just a sappy sentimentalist, manipulating audiences into feeling good. This is silly in more ways than one – filmmakers who are more willing to go dark than Spielberg is, are just as emotionally manipulative – they just pull you in another direction. It also misreads the fact that Spielberg has, at times, been more than willing to go dark – even to end films darkly. Munich is the darkest film of Spielberg’s career – a film about how the obsession with violence and vengeance can seep in and poison every part your life. A.I. literally ends with all of humanity wiped out. Minority Report can be read to have a very dark ending if you want it to. And the much maligned War of the Worlds has a lot of very dark stuff in it – yes, in that case, he messed up the ending, but that doesn’t undo everything he did before then. Yet, even when Spielberg doesn’t go dark – and that is, admittedly, most of the time, he crafts films that appear completely effortless – so much so, that I think it’s sometimes easy to overlook just how complex they are. Last year’s Bridge of Spies is a breathless thriller – yes its classical in its style, but since when is that a bad word. His latest, The BFG, harkens back to Spielberg’s more kid friendly films – like E.T. which is one of the greatest films ever made. It is full of marvelous set pieces, and some of the best special effects in any film this year – special effects that enhance the story, rather than detract from it. Yes, the film skews young – a little too young for my tastes, and yet I’m sorry that my oldest daughter is just a year or so older so I could share the movie with her in a theater. It would be nice to show her a new movie that is a candy colored, animated film. The BFG is a children’s film that proves that not all of those have to be loud, obnoxious and brain-dead.
Based on the Roald Dahl book, the film is set in the 1980s, and is about Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) – an 8 year old orphan, living in London. She’s a precocious child – she stays up all night reading, and ensuring the safety of the orphanage and the children in it. Its during one of these long nights where she catches a glimpse of the BFG (Mark Rylance) – a giant, who unlike the rest of his kind, does not eat humans, but only wants to give children sweet dreams. Even still, the BFG cannot have Sophie spreading the word about his existence, so he kidnaps her and takes her to the Land of the Giants. This isn’t a safe place for her – the rest of the giants will eat her if they get the chance. But the BFG, who is actually much smaller than the rest of the giants, thinks he can protect her. The two, of course, bond – and set out to protect the children of the world from the rest of the giants.
The BFG is fairly light on plot – but then again, it doesn’t really need a lot of narrative to hold the film together. The film does an excellent job in just a few short minutes setting up Sophie’s world in the orphanage – and her personality. It’s rather refreshing to see the film centered on a smart pre-teen girl, who while she is adorable, isn’t annoyingly so. Spielberg hasn’t centered a film on a female protagonist in decades, but he does an excellent job here. Once we are whisked away into the Land of Giants, Spielberg does an excellent job at building that world as well – in particular, the expertly designed cave that the BFG lives in – a cave that has a dusty, lived in feel – that hides some beautiful secrets behind a waterfall – and also, some sad ones. Another actor probably would have been better for the films box office, but Mark Rylance is the perfect choice for the title role. He is sweet and innocent, without being cloying. He speaks a weird version of English, complete with a lot of silly words – which I know some adults will find annoying, but kids will likely eat up. The light narrative allows Spielberg to take his time with his set pieces – the scary moments when another giant, Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement) tries find and eat Sophie for example. The best set piece is when, in the third act, the narrative stops cold and allows Sophie and the BFG sit down with the Queen of England for a robust breakfast – which is so silly and full of joy that the end of the film – the action climax – is a little bit anti-climactic by comparison.
I’m not going to argue that The BFG is one of Spielberg’s best films. It isn’t as deep as some of his films, and offers mainly surface pleasures, for a younger audience. Yet, it treats that audience with respect – which too many films of its ilk never do. And the work being done in the film is seamless. Yes, the film is that clichéd word – magical. Spielberg does this better than anyone else – and that’s harder to do than making something darker or edgier.

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