Thursday, July 7, 2016
The BFG: Off to Giant Country, and Packing Light
Judged against these lofty goals, The BFG is a failure, even if it is also, on different terms, a worthy accomplishment. This weird, amorphous movie is by no means going to become a staple on cable television, destined to be re-watched over and over; it will not be endlessly quoted in the schoolyard or relentlessly imitated at the multiplex. (In fact, it is already fizzling at the domestic box office.) But in failing to craft a cultural touchstone, Spielberg has done something arguably more impressive: He's made a children's movie that's interesting.
Which is not necessarily the same as good. The BFG has plenty of problems, chief among them its sluggish pacing. Primarily a friendly two-hander, it involves precious little incident, and most of the plot-heavy elements are either clumsily handled or perfunctorily dismissed. As someone who spent a significant portion of his childhood toggling between The BFG and James and the Giant Peach, I can appreciate Spielberg's leisurely approach—he's more concerned about capturing the syncopated rhythms and the delectable weirdness of Dahl's world than in advancing his story. That's fine, but it doesn't excuse Spielberg's apparent laziness, in particular his refusal to develop interesting villains.
Thankfully, the bad guys don't show up for quite awhile, as The BFG's opening act centers on Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, excellent), a 10-year-old insomniac orphan who one night spies an enormous person skulking about the darkened streets of London. This would be our titular giant, and while he eventually proves to be friendly as well as big, he seems awfully scary at first, as he reaches through Sophie's open window with a massive hand, snatches her and plunks her into his pocket, and whisks her off to Giant Country.
This brings us back to those aforementioned villains, and it's here where The BFG falls flattest. As it turns out, the BFG is considered a "runt", which means he's picked on mercilessly by the ill-tempered 50-foot behemoths who also inhabit Giant Country. It's possible to draw a connection here between the BFG and Sophie; both are parentless, and both appear to be victims of callous bullying. (We spend little time in Sophie's orphanage, but one look at its gloomy hallways—plus cursory familiarity with the authority figures in Dahl's oeuvre—is all that's required to deem it uninviting.) But that idea never really sticks, probably because the other giants are all grotesque, one-dimensional slobs, as tedious as they are dim-witted. Dahl always took great joy in naming creatures, and here Melissa Mathison's screenplay dutifully allots time for the BFG to identify each of his alliterative oppressors—they include Bloodbottler, Childchewer, and Gizzardgulper—but on screen, they're all just CGI snores. The only distinguishable baddie is Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), but even he is a tiresome archetype of banal stupidity.
symbolic red coats.
At the same time, the movie's lack of propulsive action is oddly refreshing, even fascinating. Spielberg may be catering to kids, but he isn't pandering to them, and his patience gives the film a uniquely luxuriant quality. This is best exemplified during a marvelous interlude in what is essentially a garden of literal dreams, where the BFG and Sophie seek to capture streaks of colored light. In moments such as this, the strains of the story fall away, and the majesty of Spielberg's vision takes over. It's a strange, unrushed, and entirely beautiful sequence, one that speaks to the rare power of fantasy filmmaking.
the stuff that dreams are made of. It also inadvertently reminds us that eventually, we all have to wake up.