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THE BFG Review: Relaxed, Silly Fun Without Any of That Bothersome Sadness Stuff

Monday, July 04, 2016 Rob Samuelson

The BFG



Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall
Rating: Three stars out of five
Available in theaters now

Loss is the engine that drives E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s 1982 classic. It is one of the most powerful lessons about loss in cinematic history. It showed that having had the experience of love means that you will never lose the spirit of the person, place, or thing you loved, even if they cannot physically be with you any longer. “I’ll be right here,” E.T.’s parting words to Elliott as he points to the boy’s heart, stick with anyone who has lost a family member, friend, or pet. There is immense, sometimes unspeakable sadness in not being able to create new memories with them, but the time spent with them was nevertheless vital to your experience as a human being. You wouldn’t trade that time for anything. You use those memories for strength.

The final collaboration between Spielberg and Mathison -- in a great loss to anyone with a heart and love of movies, Mathison died from cancer in 2015 -- shares the same DNA as its alien-starring forefather. But, despite swimming in similar waters, they achieve different outcomes, with The BFG unsurprisingly coming out the lesser. This simple story of an unlikely friendship between a Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Spielberg’s 2015 film, Bridge of Spies) and an orphan girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, making her feature film debut) lacks the urgency and finality it needs to pack a (gut) punch. In adapting Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, Spielberg and Mathison went for a sweet and relaxed lark. It is filled with formal brilliance -- technical wizardry from Steven Spielberg?! Get outta here -- and fine performances, but its attempts to pull off poignance often come off as if they are reaching for something they can’t quite grasp.

The BFG has the trappings of a bittersweet lesson for children and adults alike. It opens in the orphanage Sophie has called home since she was an infant. An insomniac, she strolls around the creaky hallways of the place she has lived in nearly all her life, but she still feels like a stranger there, unwelcomed possibly because she is a bookish kid with glasses -- Barnhill could easily pass for a member of the Spielberg family. Barnhill makes Sophie an independent, “take no crap” type when she deals with drunk pub customers outside her window in the wee hours, before she settles into “bed,” which really means she is going to read under her sheets with a flashlight. As a deft indication of the unhappy life Sophie leads in the daylight, the devious shadow of the orphanage’s chief caretaker hangs over her as she pretends to be asleep, clutching the flashlight in the hope that she has not been caught.

Sophie’s inability to sleep during the “witching hour” leaves her in the position to catch a glimpse of the massive man -- the CGI-ified version of Rylance stands about three stories tall -- sneaking around the streets, disguising himself as roadblocks or an overloaded delivery truck if anyone happens to walk by at this time of night. Sophie sees him and he sees her. When their eyes meet, he panics, snatching her right out of bed and bringing her with him all the way to Giant Country, a sort of Neverland for the big, accessible only through a cluster of magic clouds somewhere in the south of England. Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and the sound department turn Rylance’s gentle, ginger movements, anachronistic for his bigness, into movie magic. His feet land with thuds, but the kinds of thuds that recall sneaking around your parents’ home in thick socks the night before a big day of presents. The ground rumbles, but in a way that is also somehow undetectable to the untrained ear.

But those movements are details. While The BFG is oozing with delicious details, in its characters, settings, and adventure, it loses its footing with the meat of its story. It spends a large portion of its runtime deciding whether to make the BFG menacing. Is he out to eat Sophie? He puts her in a griddle, so that can’t mean good things for her prospects. But he laughs, maybe with a hint of menace? This goes on for a while and it’s tough to peg where he stands, although Rylance exudes good naturedness, so it’s never difficult to tell that he will turn out to be a force for good in Sophie’s life. This begs the question: Why worry about this for so long? Dithering on the question of the BFG’s intentions early in the film takes time away from setting up the true antagonists, the other giants who live outside the BFG’s cavern-cabin.

The leader of the horde of giants, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords), reads as more of a jerk than a purely evil villain like this story screams for. He’s an angry oaf, a bully with a destructive streak, but his threats never appear to be deadly serious -- they’re more black eye serious. In a technically dazzling scene in the BFG’s workshop, Fleshlumpeater and his bullies stumble around and break vials of his work -- the BFG collects dreams, which are visualized as multicolored lightning bugs in jars -- while trying to find the human-smelling thing (Sophie) hiding in the room. Their gigantic hands creep around corners like horrific, puffy spiders, all while Sophie weaves out of their way, up ladders, down waterslides, always just out of their reach. That is all done, it should be noted, in an unbroken shot reminiscent of the most stunning chase sequence Spielberg’s last straight adventure movie, 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin. But the thing is, these giants don’t feel like they will eat her if they were able to catch her. The movie tells us they eat people, but that is never made to feel like a genuine concern. This does not need to be Jurassic Park’s opening velociraptor scene, but other humans would need to be placed in peril before the chase in the BFG’s home to truly register the danger Sophie is in. As it stands, she looks like she is more likely to be stomped accidentally by a foot the size of a Jeep than to be eaten like they say they plan to do.

All of that would have been fine if the movie had been able to nail the bittersweet tone it seeks. It pays lip service to the need to live one’s life, but the bitter part of the equation becomes so faint that it removes the sting of ultimate separation. Unlike E.T., The BFG is unwilling to let sadness become too prominent. But coming to terms with that sadness and realizing that everyone is a better person -- or giant -- for having experienced life together, even for a short period of time, is the stuff of life. A fun romp is a fun romp, especially when aided by the adventurous imagery of the most naturally gifted American filmmaker of his generation. But The BFG’s refusal to pause on the darker qualities of life prevent it from having lasting resonance.

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