Thursday, June 30, 2016

Film Review: The BFG

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Violence No Objection
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection

This is much more a Disney movie than a Spielberg movie.

Specifically, I am referring to the classic Disney Live-Action films of the 1960's-1970's like Mary Poppins, Bednobs and Broomsticks, The Absent-Minded Professor, and Swiss Family Robinson.  They only real difference is that the cinematic technology is much more advanced.

This is not necessarily a negative.  I love the above movies and they are sweetly innocent in their way.  And so is Spielberg's latest: The BFG.

The BFG (meaning the "Big Friendly Giant") is based on the Rohld Dahl book of the same name.  It involves a precocious orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who one dark night spies a giant (Mark Rylance) on the streets of London.  The giant steals her away to Giant Country where she soon discovers that he is a friendly giant.  But he has to hide her away because the other giants, who are much larger and more brutal, will eat Sophie if they find her.  While living in Giant Country, Sophie accompanies BFG as he collects dreams and then gives them to sleeping humans.  But the menace of the larger giants looms.

Visually, the movie is big and bold and colorful.  There is something very childlike and wonderful about exploring a world that is magnitudes larger than yourself.  I think that it touches on that perspective we had as children but lost as we grew up, where the world seems so horribly huge and wondrous.  And there is some real beauty to the world created that children will very much love.

And the performances of the two leads is excellent.  Barnhill shows great charisma and screen presence.  Rylance also is incredibly effective and affective as BFG.  In a movie where he plays a fantastical looking giant, it's the subtlety he brings that makes him work so well.  BFG pulls at your heartstrings in the silent moment when Rylance shows the strain of feeling something complicated and big without having the vocabulary to express it.

The big problem with the movie is its complete lack of depth.  ET was a children's movie that didn't talk down to children.  The parallels to ET are there: lonely child and lonely fantastic creature form an unlikely friendship.  In fact, not only Spielberg the director of both, but both movies are written by the late Melissa Mathison.  Yet The BFG feels like adult filmmakers have taken a knee to get eye-level with their audience and talk in slow small words so we can understand.  This may be a result of the source material (I have not read it).  But if that was the case, more depth could have been added.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (one of my favorite books) does not have incredibly sophisticated character relationships and development.  But in the movie version, the filmmakers wisely added dimension to the story.  The BFG could have benefited from such treatment.

In terms of character, much is left out of the motivations.  We know that Sophie is an orphan, but we really don't get a sense of her orphan life.  We don't understand why she is so brave.  In terms of the world we see, it also doesn't hold together very well.  Why does BFG have a job and other giants don't?  Who gave it to him?  I know that these may be silly questions, but the challenged my suspension of disbelief.  The narrative structure was jarring as well.  You are thrown in to the story without much time for rest and reflection.  And the development of the third act seems to come out of nowhere.

And there are few moments that feel very much in Spielberg's wheelhouse of wonder.  But he really is making a "kids movie" in a way we haven't seen him do since Hook.  It feels much more like he adapted his directing to the material rather than adapting the material to his aesthetic.

But maybe I'm being too hard on the movie.  It is a good deal of fun.  It has the longest build up to a fart joke I have seen in a movie and every little kid in the theater was giggling uncontrollably.  Maybe this is a movie made really just for kids and I should be okay with that.

As a Catholic, I noted some lovely moments of love and affection in the relation between Sophie and BFG that is reminiscent of the relationship of us to God.  The analogy isn't perfect, but BFG tells Sophie that he always hears her even if she can't see him.  There is one scene in particular that was so wonderfully beautiful: Sophie is standing on a balcony and calls out to BFG, though she cannot see him.  She struggles believing if he is there or if he was a figment of her imagination.  But in the end, she decides to make a leap of faith.  It was a beautiful reminder that all of our relationships, whether with each other or with God, must involve taking this leap.  If we do not, then we will never have a strong relationship.

Although I'm guessing that The BFG will not be revered as Disney Classic, it is a colorful and pleasant movie that little children will enjoy.

3 out of 5 stars.

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