Critics don’t like to admit this but there are films we go into wanting very much to like. I know we’re supposed to be impartial until the lights go down, treating every movie the same until happy moments or painful miscues tilt the balance.
Which, of course, is bull. We all have favorites — directors, subjects, books we want to see adapted. We do look forward to the next film by FILL IN THE DIRECTOR or the much ballyhooed film version of NAME A FAVORITE NOVEL.
Thus, imagine my anticipation for “The BFG” — those initials stand for Big Friendly Giant — from a beloved 1982 children’s book by Roald Dahl, adapted by director Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison, none other than the team that gave us arguably the all-time children’s movie classic, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”
If that isn’t enough, “E.T.” came out the same year Dahl’s classic was published. One can’t help noticing even the uncanny similarities between the two works where a child meets an otherworldly being and a deep relationship ensues.
Alas, I couldn’t get into the movie. From virtually the first frame I was watching a fantastical London and then a Giant Country imagined as only Spielberg and his team of visual effects magicians can but I just watched it. Neither story nor characters engaged me.
I figure it must be my fault. The movie has a hugely Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics and will open huge this weekend as children and their families will no doubt see it and see it again.
Where am I going wrong?
Let’s look first at the worlds created. The London of “The BFG” is a timeless one that Dickens might recognize but feels almost animated. Even its humans including its protagonist, parentless 10-year-old Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) feel less real than cartoons. Something to do with skin tone and inordinately smooth bland features I imagine.
When later you hear a reference to Ronald Reagan and realize the movie takes place deep in the 1980s, it comes as a jolt. Why even bother specifying an era when Dahl must have been aiming for the timeless?
One night, ’round about the “witching hour” of 3 a.m., Sophie, up late and absorbed in a book, catches sight of a giant. He is galumphing around the neighborhood and blowing something into bedroom windows from what appears like a huge trumphet-like devise.
His cover blown — wouldn’t a giant blow his cover almost every night? — he snatches Sophie from her dormitory bed In an orphanage and spirits her off to his homeland of Giant Country. This land is a dull, hardscrabble island or peninsula that never takes on the Neverland feeling I assume it’s going for.
Two things dominate this No Man’s Land: a race of giants, all nasty and irritable with disgusting cannibalistic habits, but also a magical pool to Dream Country, an upside-down world where dreams are made.
As to the first, the curious thing is that this race of giants consists of only nine going by the names such as Fleshlumpeater, Bonecruncher and Meatdripper and since all are males they are well on their way to extinction anyway.
These giants as well as the BFG, who appears half their size, are created by Joe Letteri and Peter Jackson’s WETA performance capture team. Mark Rylance, who of course won an Oscar working with Spielberg in last year’s “Bridge of Spies,” plays the BFG. He is given a cartoonish version of Rylance own facial features only with Dumbo-sized ears, a long scraggly neck and hair that never knew a good hair day.
Characters hugely out of proportion may work in a novel but share a movie screen awkwardly. The perspective is off, even within the BFG’s cave made to resemble a mad scientist’s lair in a Universal flick circa 1935, where tiny Sophie gets lost unless Spielberg gives her medium or close shots.
Those nine giants a dull lot, little differentiating them other than their extreme physiognomy and Keystone Kutziness. One villain does emerge in the giant leader Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) but he’s no Captain Hook. His treachery is played more like buffoonery.
Thus the second act occupies itself with the BFG and Sophie evading these hungry giants while the big guy introduces her to his dream-catching enterprise. It seems the BFG collects pleasant dreams from Dream Country and blows them (via that trumpet) through the windows of sleeping children. Why this “Inception”-like task, self-assigned or otherwise, exists is never explained.
A third act takes you back to London, to Buckingham Palace no less, to obtain the Queen’s assistance in capturing and containing these giants who apparently have been roaming the U.K. and elsewhere snatching and eating children. While this follows the design of Dahl’s story, it fails to come off on screen, at least for me.
There are forced perspective jokes as the BFG crawls around the palace — only in certain rooms dare he stand — and means must be devised to get him a proper breakfast as food and drink get hoisted up to his perch far above.
Here Spielberg seems to be marking time with farce while one wonders why the BFG even needs a breakfast given the urgency of rescuing children the world over.
The climax with a helicoptering British expeditionary force following the BFG to Giant Country to corral his fellow giants is anti-climatic and relatively unexciting. Meanwhile the friendship between the two creatures of different sizes comes off by means of endless dialogue, much of which is not easily understood given the BFG’s propensity to speak in a dialect known as “gobble funk,” a thing one works out on page but doesn’t quite pick up as it flies by on a soundtrack.
So tell me what I’m missing here? The narrative feels disjointed, choppy even, and all other characters other than the two major ones barely register. The cinematography by Spielberg and longtime d.p. Janusz Kaminski is brilliant but more like Christmas ornaments without a tree.
To me, nothing sparks to life. I want it to, believe me; I want to frolic in these imaginative worlds yet nothing invites me in. Young Barnhill is perfunctory rather than charming. She doesn’t project much of a personality, I’m afraid.
Rylance makes a fine mo-cap actor but perhaps underplays his scenes too much. When one imagines Robin Williams, whom Spielberg originally had in mind for the role, one imagines a completely different movie.
The Queen, played by Penelope Wilton, isn’t even trying to emulate Elizabeth II, which perhaps is a good idea, but she comes off as a middle-class housewife in St John’s Wood tasked with preparing a meal for an unlikely visitor. Rebecca Hall plays her immediate aide but has little to do other than provide reaction shots.
“The BFG,” for me, gets caught between old-fashioned Dickensian fairy stories and the new, exciting worlds imagined by the Pixar crew. “Frozen” knew how to inhabit the old-fashioned with new techniques and attitudes. But this 1982 tale can’t find the right tone or technique to bring such wit and playfulness to a tale about two out-of-proportion pals.
Opens: July 1, 2016 (Disney Studios)
Production: Kennedy Marshall Productions, Amblin Entertainment, Walden Media
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Melissa Mathison
Based on the book by: Roald Dahl
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer
Executive producers: Kathleen Kennedy, John Madden, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Michael Siegel
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminsky
Production designers: Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Music: John Williams
Senior visual effects supervisor: Joe Letteri
Editor: Michael Kahn
PG rating, 115 minutes