Friday, July 1, 2016

Striving For Wonder: The BFG



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I never read Roald Dahl's book The BFG as a kid, so pardon me for thinking, for a little while, that the title was short for "the Big Fucking Guy;" turns out it's "the Big Friendly Giant"! (Although, I don't think Dahl would have minded that particular misunderstanding).

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), is prone to insomnia, and wanders the halls of her London orphanage at the dead of night. During one of these restless eves, she spots a giant upturning garbage cans in the street below her window. Having been spotted, the giant snatches her, whisking her away to giant country.

After her initial fear, she realizes the giant is, in fact, quite friendly, especially in comparison to his giant comrades, who are much bigger and much meaner than him. The giant bullies want nothing more than to eat "human beans" like Sophie, and sleep. But the BFG is content to subsist on a vegetarian diet of slimey snozzcumbers and to venture out to his nightly job of capturing and releasing dreams.

Mark Rylance plays the BFG, and it's his second collaboration with Spielberg in a year. (They last teamed up for The Bridge of Spies, which resulted in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Rylance.) The BFG's biggest charm is his speech, which is full of jumbled words and naïve malapropisms, and Rylance has the perfect voice for such a character. It's calm, soothing, and exudes kindness.

Sophie is a smart and spunky heroine, and Barnhill never falls into the overly-cute-child-actor trap. Which shouldn't come as a surprise; Spielberg's always been able to get great performances out of his child actors.

It's just a shame some strong performances are stuck in such an uneven movie. Spielberg strives for wonder in the first half, but achieves it only once, during a beautiful dream-hunting scene that reminded me of another uneven Disney film, Fantasia.

The second half aims for comedy, with Sophie and the BFG enlisting the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) to help them defeat the mean child-snatching giants. It's a silly and amusing set-up, especially when they all gather round for breakfast before setting off to battle; it's undeniably fun watching a giant eat toast and eggs with a garden rake while sitting on top of a grand piano. But the movie takes a looooong time to get to that point, and film's finale is so anti-climatic, if it were anyone else directing, I'd have thought they ran out of money before they could finish filming.

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