The Never-Bending Storyteller
It's easy to see the cynicism in Disney's recent streak of live-action remakes, designed as much, it seems, to play on parental nostalgia as to attract younger audiences. The Mouse House is not alone in this strategy, and I've spent more than enough time railing against Hollywood's rampant brand recycling. But there's something different about this studio's approach to the material: instead of jobbing out sequels and requels to inexpensive indie-film directors, they tend to go top-shelf, enlisting artistes like Kenneth Brannagh and Jon Favreau. It can be argued (and has been) that the updates versions are rote; don't bring anything new to the table; and lack the spirit of the originals.
I was never a fan of Disney's animated features as a child. The movies I bothered to watch (and rarely finished) bored me to tears. That's heresy, I know, especially being an artist by trade, and one who understands that those filmmakers were essential to creating the language of film and animation. In short, my lack of emotional ties to (or even familiarity with) the originals left me wide open to appreciate the charms of new-millennium Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book. Yes they're unnecessary. Yes, they're just stories we already know, adorned in expensive technology.
Here are two dirty little secrets about movies: none are necessary, and the "original" Disney films were mostly adapted from books. I'm sure, someone in the 1960s wondered why they should bother watching a singing-cartoon version of The Jungle Book when they could just as easily read Rudyard Kipling's novel. Sometimes, filmmaking is about pushing the medium's boundaries, whether making the leap from page to painted cells, or from painted cells to motion-captured, 3D-rendered animals.
Which brings us, at last, to Steven Spielberg's The BFG, Disney's big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved 1982 children's book. The simple story is, in a way, an appropriation of themes from Annie and Dahl's most famous work, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: an orphan finds herself in a world where oddball creatures use magic to create things we humans take for granted in our everyday lives. The young protagonist discovers that being a grownup is just as confusing, werid, and fraught with danger as being a kid; in the end, everyone learns that navigating adulthood is not a matter of growing up, but of holding on. All three are rags-to-riches tales. The two Dahl stories are stuffed with food porn and lyrical, tongue-twisting language.
In terms of presentation and pacing, The BFG has more in common with The NeverEnding Story than Annie or Wonka. The titular Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) snatches young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) from the orphanage late one night, after she catches him peering into people's bedrooms. He takes her to the land of giants, which he shares with a pack of incredibly mean, incredibly stupid, and much, much larger barbarians whose daily routine consists of sleeping and bullying the BFG.
We spend much of the first hour following Sophie around the good giant's home, into the caverns beneath it, and through the mountains beyond, where he captures, categorizes, and releases mankind's firefly-like dreams. Aside from a couple encounters with the head bad giant, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), which leads to unwitting games of hide-and-seek involving Sophie and oversized food/furniture, Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison aren't interested in ADD-kids-movie stuff--preferring instead to let us soak up the richly rendered details of this unseen world, and the lonely, put-upon steward whose job it is to add flavor to ours.
The second half is much more "eventful", and introduces the downright silly, satirical critique of adulthood we've come to expect from Dahl. I won't give too much away, but Sophie meets her own Daddy Warbucks in the form of the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), circa 1984. The tone shifts from pensive to playful as the cast expands to include Rafe Spahl and Rebecca Hall. They play members of the royal staff, who welcome Sophie and the BFG with kindness and curiosity, rather than the stuffiness and suspicion that would have taken the film down a more predictable, far less delightful path.
The key to my enjoyment of The BFG was the believability of Rylance and Barnhill's rapport. The key to that was believing in Ryance as this character, which was achieved, of course, through more groundbreaking digital effects work and performance capture. I was taken out of the film several times in the first hour, but not in a bad way. Because Spielberg spends so much time just letting us tag along with and explore the features of this imaginary world, we have ample opportunity to marvel at the painstakingly crafted features on the giant's face. Even with the exaggerated ears, nose, and hands, the BFG is unmistakably Rylance. The soul radiates from the eyes, and in the praise-worthy voice acting. In transitioning to the second half, I no longer thought of the Big Friendly Giant as a CGI creation, but as a lovable, mischievous character who connects with others by sharing his favorite fizzy fart-making drink.*
I'll drop a note of caution here regarding the ever-present problem of the 3D upcharge. Moviegoers would do well to stick with the 2D option when venturing out to the theatre. My one complaint about The BFG has to do with the gaudy planar separation between characters and their surrounding elements. This is especially troubling in the film's too-brief climax, in which Barnhill appears to be simply running and ducking on a treadmill in front of a projection screen that's also playing a 3D movie. I would imagine the flattening effect of a traditional showing would go far in sorting out this visual annoyance.
This movie would have been a favorite of mine had I seen it as an eight-year-old boy. I can imagine watching it curled up on the couch during a hundred rainy Saturday afternoons. It's sweet and goofy, and doesn't aspire to be anything but an odd and immersive adventure story. Many of Disney's live-action updates aim to evoke the Spielberg-ian thrill of 80s-era child-fantasy pictures, and they largely succeed. With The BFG, Spielberg reminds us why he's the giant on whose shoulders other filmmakers have stood for decades, while also proving that he's still the best at capturing, categorizing, and releasing the essence of our dreams.
*I'm not ashamed to admit that I joined the cacophony of laughing kids at my screening, when the BFG introduces this drink to high society.