Friday, July 1, 2016

Big and Small: "The BFG" gentle and whimsical but cannot sustain story

The BFG (2016)
115 min., rated PG.

Beyond a 1989 animated teleplay, adapting Road Dahl’s 1982 book about a Big, Friendly Giant and his unlikely friendship with an orphaned “human bean” to the screen has been an idea in development for 25 years. Now with the technology more than there and a raconteur for childlike wonder like Steven Spielberg at the helm, coupled with the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison (1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”), “The BFG” has been brought to fruition as an undeniable labor of love with a can’t-miss pedigree. With that said, it leaves one deflated by being unable to give the film anything higher than a mild recommendation. In theory, the oddball sensibilities of Dahl’s story executed with that fanciful Spielbergian touch should speak more to the adults who read the source material closer to its publication date than wee little children. In reality, this live-action/motion-capture adaptation amuses and charms on occasion but plods in the middle section and does not strike the stirring emotional chord that Dahl’s fable deserves.

During the 3 a.m. witching hour in her London orphanage, plucky 10-year-old insomniac Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) lies awake with a book in bed. Then she happens upon something extraordinary: a shadowy giant roaming the streets outside her bedroom. When the monster snatches her up in her blanket and whisks her away to his hut in Giant Country, the initially frightened Sophie realizes her captor is actually rather friendly. The gibberish-speaking, snozzcumber-eating giant (Mark Rylance), whom Sophie names “BFG,” has no plans of eating her but can’t let her go, either, in case she blabs her mouth off about his whereabouts. Of course, BFG isn’t like the other child-eating giants in his faraway land, but it will have to be up to Sophie to show the human world her new friend means no one any harm.

When “The BFG” begins, it feels like a return to form for Steven Spielberg (and composer John Williams, for that matter). Sophie sneaking around the orphanage and reading in bed during the witching hour wonderfully sets up the adventure the little orphan will experience, and the 24-foot-tall BFG hiding in plain sight on the streets with his trumpet and suitcase in hand evokes magic and whimsy. Even the time devoted to Sophie realizing her new giant friend doesn’t want to eat her seems like a seamless marriage for Roald Dahl’s weirdness and Spielberg’s sentiment. Sophie and BFG’s connection is enough at first, but when the story has to step up and go somewhere from there, it’s not nearly as special. The indulgent antics with the lumbering Bad Giants (all grossly detailed) accomplish very little and just feel like the tangential appendices that dragged down the pacing and narrative momentum in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Hobbit.” When Sophie and BFG finally reach the Queen of England, the film mostly gets back to finding its way. It helps that Penelope Wilton is such a hoot as the Queen and Rafe Spall has some nice moments as her butler, while Rebecca Hall is underused as her handmaiden. One will also be surprised to find a whole breakfast sequence in Buckingham Palace dedicated to BFG’s fizzy, flatulence-inducing Frobscottle drink that even affects the Queen’s adorable Corgis. It sounds juvenile, but the joke actually lands in a big way; come to think of it, is this Spielberg's first fart joke?

The film’s success is split down the middle by Spielberg’s languid pacing and perhaps the thinness of Dahl’s story, but the leads are total delights. 12-year-old newcomer Ruby Barnhill is a spunky, spirited charmer as the precocious Sophie and always seems to be acting opposite a substantial giant, while a performance-captured Mark Rylance (this being the actor’s second collaboration with the director after his Oscar-winning work in 2015’s “Bridge of Spies”) is a marvelous BFG. The gentleness of the character is perfectly conveyed by the lovely Rylance, whose sensitive, soulful eyes cannot be mistaken for CGI, and somehow his cockney vocabulary never grates but only endears even more.

Stripped of a three-act structure, “The BFG” didn’t have to be incident-filled per se, but compared to all of Roald Dahl’s other stories taken to the big screen—1971’s “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” or 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” 1990’s “The Witches,” 1996’s “Matilda” and “James and the Giant Peach,” 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”—this one is a little wobbly in telling an engaging story. Sophie and BFG are so fantastic together that they deserve one that hit more of a stride. On the other hand, when Spielberg can still prove his joy for moviemaking and find a beating heart in yet another strangely sweet friendship, maybe a meandering story can be slightly forgiven. “The BFG” certainly has special qualities; it just should have been great rather than pretty good.

Grade: B - 

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