Tuesday, July 5, 2016
BANAL FORCED GENERIC: a review of "The BFG"
Based upon the novel by Roald Dahl
Screenplay Written By Melissa Mathison
Directed by Steven Spielberg
** (two stars)
Books are books and movies are movies.
This is an adage that I have repeated time and again upon this blogsite in reference to the often turbulent path that books then adapted for movies usually takes in the minds of every individual reader/viewer. Simply stated, when one reads a book the "movie," such as it is, has already been made inside the brain of the reader and very rarely will any motion picture stack up against what we have already envisioned for ourselves. Now, this is not to say that successful film versions are impossible to realize as there have been so many that I have seen throughout my life that have proven themselves to not only serve as fine visual adaptations but as excellent films within their own right some that are able to exist almost independently of the source material and some that have driven me right towards the source material.
Over the last decade or so, for example, what Peter Jackson accomplished with "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy (2001/2002/2003) and even the unfairly maligned "The Lovely Bones" (2009), were faithful and completely inventive. With "25th Hour" (2002), Spike Lee's adaptation of David Benoit's original novel, he delivered not only one of the finest most lyrical films of his career but also a richly solemn lament for post 9-11 New York. Additionally, by taking the risk of re-aligning the narrative and leading character perspective, Lee's "Clockers" (1995), his adaptation of Richard Price's original novel, was altered from a gritty cop and criminals story to becoming a powerful indictment of the inner city drug trade and the destruction of African-American families and neighborhoods. With Stephen Frears' wonderful "High Fidelity" (2000), transporting the action and characters from the original location of London in the original Nick Hornby novel, to leading actor John Cusack's Chicago stomping grounds did nothing to dilute the social commentary and razor sharp perceptiveness of romantic relationships and the lives of near middle aged music obsessives. And of course, there is the "Harry Potter" film series (2001-2011), a series that I originally never even wanted Hollywood to get its hands upon due to the visual splendor that exists within series creator/author J.K. Rowling's exquisite writing, became an increasingly powerful film series, as directed by Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell and David Yates, that magically seemed to pluck my impressions straight from my head and place them directly upon the screen exactly as I had imagined them.
Now, I arrive at "The BFG," the adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg and even heading into seeing the film, I knew that this time, I would be in for a quandary. You see, in my real world adventures as a preschool teacher, Dahl's novel is one that I have read out loud to my students for several years, therefore a situation where I have really made the movie already, for my students as well as for myself as my body language and altering my voice to fully bring the characters to life all serve as the "cinematography," "special effects," and most certainly the acting. I wondered if even Spielberg, a master filmmaker and one of my personal cinematic heroes, would be able to help me forget how I had envisioned Dahl's novel and lose myself within the fantasy that he wished to present. Unfortunately, he was not. "The BFG" is not a bad film by any means, but it is a surprisingly uninvolving one. A film where pretty images dance and a full fantasia fills the screen but it never really adds up to terribly much and is also wrongfully toothless considering the acerbic and much darker tone Dahl exhibited within his writings. For what should truly have been a dream, only ends up as an extended yawn.
As with the original novel, "The BFG" opens in London at 3 a.m., otherwise known as "the witching hour," the time of night when the entire world is asleep, allowing the shadows and whatever lives within them to come out and explore. Yet on this particular night, one figure is awake and that figure is 10 year old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphaned insomniac living in a large orphanage. Serving her curious nature, Sophie unwisely creeps from er bed to take a peek out into the night when she spots a tall, dark figure skulking around concealed by a cloak and adorned with a bag and what appears to be a long trumpet. Suddenly, the figure and Sophie lock eyes and within moments, an enormous arm reaches in through the orphanage window, plucks Sophie straight from her bed and off into the night.
Arriving in Giant Country, Sophie is introduced to the figure she will soon name "The BFG" (as in "Big Friendly Giant"), a 24 foot tall giant (portrayed through motion capture technology by Mark Rylance), whose occupation is a dream catcher who utilizes his trumpet to blow lovely dreams into the minds of children throughout London each night. At first fearing that she will be eaten by The BFG, she soon discovers that he has no interest in eating "human beans," and is actually a vegetarian, somewhat sustained by solely eating the repugnant tasting Snozzcumbers, but is otherwise delighted by his specialized brand of soda, called Frobscottle, where the bubbles run downwards instead of upwards causing riotous, musical flatulence.
Although Sophie is relived knowing that she will not be eaten, he is troubled to discover that The BFG refuses to return her home to the orphanage and will be forced to live in Giant Country forever due to the BFG's fears that if he is discovered by humans, he will be captured and trapped himself and possibly placed into a zoo. Even worse, is the presence of nine fearsome, horrific, 50 feet tall giants, with names like the Fleshlumpeater (played by Jemaine Clement), the Bloodbottler (played by Bill Hader) among others, who by day, bully the smaller BFG and by night after night, venture out into the world to feast upon children in their sleep.
After a few close calls with the Fleshlumpeater, Sophie convinces The BFG to hatch a plot to rid the world of the cannibalistic giants once and for all, but they would need the help of the Queen Of England (Penelope Wilton) as well as a new batch of collected dreams.
Steven Spielberg's "The BFG" is earnestly presented, a true family film that feels designed to serve as an echo to his timeless, iconic "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" (1982) but it falls far short of its goals, very strange considering the pedigree behind the scenes, including screenwriter Melissa Mathison who wrote the script for "E.T." and who also sadly passed away in November of 2015.
Yes some of my frustrations and criticisms about this film version do arrive from the place of Spielberg's vision not aligning with my own, which should be somewhat fair game. For instance, in the insistence of keeping the proceedings wholesome, Spielberg has softened the tone considerably, sacrificing much of Dahl's darker, rougher edges, which makes the novel a sometimes tougher, more frightening experience, especially dealing with child eating giants as well as dreams and nightmares, essentially making the book more like a Grimm's fairy tale rather than a gentle fairy tale. It is not that the film needed to become more overtly violent or gruesome but to have some genuine terror would have been necessary in my eyes. It was surprising to me how Sophie, as portrayed by Barnhill, never really ever seemed to be frightened at any point in the film, whereas within the novel, Sophie's fear is palpable.
To that end, I also found that Ruby Barnhill was not a terribly compelling young actress, also a surprise considering Spielberg's legendary gift with working with the very young. She is capable but also very one note to the point of being a little stiff and unnatural. Furthermore, Spielberg's conception of the character for the film version is also a bit lacking and missing the point. Sophie, within the novel, is decidedly brave, empathetic, loving, resourceful, encouraging and often ingenious. The film version also adorns its heroine with all of those attributes as well. But what Sophie is within the novel and not necessarily presented on screen is innocent, filled with an eye popping wonder and amazement with her surroundings and this impossible adventure into which she has been thrown. On screen, Sophie never felt to possess that level of innocence, but she did have a rather oft-putting feisty nature that never felt to be true to her character, and a matter-of-fact nature that felt as if she has been plucked and taken away to Giant Country many times before, thus deflating any sense of awe.
But it is not entirely the fault of Barnhill's performance. I do think that we are now within another film where we are given copious special effects that simply are not special. Spielberg, as a pioneer of working with special visual effects and knowing how to present them in order to make a fully transportive experience, was undone by all of the CGI and motion capture technology on display. Yes, Mark Ryance delivers a firmly enjoyable performance in the titular role but I do, however, wonder whatteh film would have been like through more traditional means of make up, costumes, real world set design and camera effects to realize Giant Country, the giants, and the BFG himself. There was just an aspect about the film that seemed to really separate the human characters and real world from the synthetic that never felt to seamlessly join real and fantasy together terribly well. Not all of the time, mind you, but overall.
One sequence where The BFG and Sophie venture to Dream Country where dreams and nightmares (called "Trogglehumpers") float and fly by like multi-colored fireflies is very lovely. Another wonderful sequence set during breakfast time at Buckingham Palace with The BFG and the Queen is a terrific comedy of manners. But, mostly, we are just given a collection of well choreographed yet slightly overlong near captures, discoveries and escapes that often feel like padding in a story that doesn't need any.
But most of all, I felt to be let down but he central heart of the story which is of course, the relationship between Sophie and The BFG, two lonely outsiders who find each other and formulate a family together. Here is where I felt Spielberg and Mathison overplayed their hands and just should have allowed the source material to fully guide their way. What resulted was a forced presentation of a melancholic core that was already in place It really wasn't necessary to give The BFG a tragic backstory when his existence as is already possesses sadness and pathos. A mid film return to London for Sophie felt completely unnecessary and frankly, did not make much sense considering the narrative, but felt to exist to give an extra tug of the heartstrings when some of the novel quieter sequences between our two heroes would have worked much better and more honestly.
Steven Spielberg, for almost the entirety of my life, has accomplished the miraculous feat of creating cinematic universes where I am transported, either into the past, a conceptualized future or dream world or into a full adventure or experience where I forget that I am sitting within a movie theater. Yet, with "The BFG," I felt to be more than comfortably aware of all of the computers as work when the real special effects should have been to allow Roald Dahl's story, characters and marvelously inventive language set the stage--they really didn't need any extra push and everything is all there on the page.
Again, I say that books are books and movies are movies but in the case of "The BFG," the real giant is indeed the written word.