Monday, 15 August 2016

The BFG (2016) - Movie Review

Steven Spielberg is one of those filmmakers that downright demands attention, although not for reasons you may think. Sure, he’s the guy largely responsible for the modern-day blockbuster and has helped shape American cinema into what it is today, but in the last few years, it seems like the guy has kicked into a higher gear. Along with working with alarming regularity for a filmmaker of his stature, releasing five films in as many years, he has also taken to collaborating with some pretty high-profile names during that time. Between working with Peter Jackson along with some of the biggest names in British screenwriting on The Adventures Of Tintin, putting a script written by legendary playwright Tony Kushner to the screen with Lincoln or bringing in the Coen brothers to help polish up last year’s excellent Bridge Of Spies, he seems to be a magnet for big-name talent behind the scenes right now. And keeping up with that pattern, he has brought a bunch of his regular teammates to make a big-budget version of a story by Roald Dahl, responsible for Matilda, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and The Witches, among many other classics. So, with all this hype behind it, how does it hold up?

The plot: While sleeping in a London orphanage, inquisitive orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is snatched up by the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) and taken into Giant Country, populated by a group of child-eating giants. As Sophie learns more about the ways of the giants, and what makes the BFG so different from the norm even for his own people, she must work with the BFG to stop the giants once and for all from snatching away children from London.

The cast list is rather small, but they certainly packed it in tightly when it came to performance ability. Rylance had already proven to be a good pairing with Spielberg thanks to last year’s Bridge Of Spies, and he returns that synergy ten-fold here as this mesmerisingly kind soul. Rather than coming across as being simple-minded, which given how his character is written could have happened way too easily, he instead maintains a sense of complacency with how he is, who he is and what his place in the world is. Rylance’s voice helps a lot as well, giving an endlessly comforting air to every work he speaks that makes the potentially My First Stockholm Syndrome plot sit way easier than it has any right to.

Barnhill is about as textbook Roald Dahl protagonist as you can get, being exceedingly precocious while still keeping that childish innocence about her. It shouldn’t be difficult to link her performance and mannerisms to that of Mara Wilson as Matilda, something that was no doubt intentional. The voice of the Fleshlumpeater, the head-strong leader of the giants, has a certain arresting quality in how smooth it is, something that makes a lot more sense once you realise that said voice is coming from Jemaine Clement of Flight Of The Conchords; the man just has that natural air to his voice no matter what role he’s in. Outside of a few noticeable faces further on in the story, like Penelope Wilton as the epitome of all things British (and yet, not insufferably stuffy) with the Queen and Rafe Spall as her butler, that’s about it as far as the cast goes.

Spielberg’s legacy as a filmmaker, even after all the many decades since he first started, is intact for reasons that will perfectly obvious once the film begins. He seems to have taken a slightly Kubrickian approach with the source material, in that a large amount of the production leans on the visuals. The results of which are mostly good, but still come across as slightly mixed. Despite the basic notion of depicting several-feet-tall giants, what we see of Giant Country and its inhabitants is weirdly domestic. It doesn’t have this insane kind of grandeur to it, as one might expect from the idea of showing what is quite literally an undiscovered country, but instead a sense of intimacy. The BFG’s house is definitely imbued with lots of whimsy, something that Spielberg has honed over a career of crafting some of the most celebrated family films of all time, but it still feels like a home. There are wide open fields outside the house, but there’s nothing all that alien about them.

I’d accuse this film of sucking out all the wonder through making everything feel this small, but all it ends up doing is making it easier to relate to the BFG himself. Once again, anything to help ease the kidnapping startup. We have Zemeckis-level motion-capture used for the giants, which actually works at making them seem tangible… when there aren’t any humans on screen. I don’t know what it is about integrating effects work with live-action, but it seems like even the old masters struggle with such things because there is the occasional jarring moment when you can see both of them at once. This is what I mean by “mixed”: Both are good, but not so much when they come together.

Written by frequent Spielberg collaborator Melissa Mathison, as well as being the scribe for the perplexingly emotional bit of nostalgia The Indian In The Cupboard, this story seems a tad too… basic, for lack of a better term, to be chosen as the story of Roald Dahl’s that should be adapted. It has the standard tropes of depicting outsiders and how children aren’t as simple as we’d like to think, but none of the real captivation and nuance that one might get from something like Matilda or Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. Hell, there’s an entire scene centred around the suspense of when everyone is going to start letting out extremely violent flatulence thanks to a drink the giant brings with him. But as the film carries on, and we get to see a few certain pictures and a few certain writings in the BFG’s house, the reason for why this was chosen is made shockingly clear.

This film, at least in how it frames the titular character, is meant to be a tribute to Dahl himself. The outsider who can craft dreams like a mad alchemist, whom can only seem to relate to the innocent hearts of children, combined with how Dahl’s drawings appear in the film along with the aforementioned bits of writing the BFG gets up to near the end; the BFG is Roald Dahl, in this film’s eyes. Now, as it stands, this is a remarkably nice idea, both as an approach to adaptation as well as the fact that this film was first released on the day of Dahl’s 100th birthday. But, judging by this along with similar intentions made with Spielberg’s Kubrick collaboration/tribute A.I., the man isn’t that comfortable with nodding to his forebears. I say that because this seems like a very surface interpretation of Dahl’s work, primarily because even for a film that features child-eating monsters, this is a surprisingly safe film. It doesn’t carry any of the darker undercurrents that run rampant through a lot of the man’s work, making this come across, as much as I loathe to use the term, a very Hollywood form of tribute.

This is probably not helped by the soundtrack, and you know something is seriously amiss when I have to bring up the work of John bloody Williams as a negative. The man has worked with Spielberg for most of his professional career, so it is without doubt that he has some knowing about how the man thinks as a filmmaker. That seems rather lacking here, as whatever issues I have with the somewhat sanitised story are only exemplified through Williams’ score. It’s almost like he was stuck in ‘whimsy’ mode and they couldn’t get the technicians in to switch him off, because this might be some of the most treacly orchestration I’ve heard in any of the films I’ve discussed on this site. While the rest of the film may skimp on the dark stuff, it still manages to keep a decent pace from start to finish and the performances and visual splendour definitely help make it a comfortable watch. But once the score kicks in, it sends the film dangling over the edge and about to land squarely on the sugar-encrusted rocks of bad Oscar bait fare. It’s all rather textbook in its sweeping instrumentation, but it ultimately becomes the last straw that ends up threatening to overload the film’s tone.

All in all, as much as I may have complained above, this is a rather nice feature. Whether it ultimately stands as a fitting tribute to Roald Dahl himself will be a question only a few good years of separation will be able to answer, but as a film in its own right, it shows that even when Spielberg is somewhat on auto-pilot, he is still a staggeringly good filmmaker. The visuals are a tad askew when put together, but show a lot of effort and patience when into making them that ended up working for the best, the acting is stellar and the writing, while a bit too soft given the source material, still carries that undeniably Dahlian air that has allowed his works to live on for as long as they have.

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