Friday, July 1, 2016

The BFG

Be Careful What You Wish For
or
Dreams That Go Bad

In 1982, a couple of big things happened in the world of kid's entertainment: Steven Spielberg directed E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a re-imagining of an earlier screenplay idea in which evil aliens harass the residents of an American town—he became dissatisfied with it and reversed it with the help of screen-writer Melissa Mathison (who had written the equally magical The Black Stallion) to fashion it into the biggest movie hit of the year, and, for awhile, of all time; In London, Jonathan Cape published Roald Dahl's "The BFG," an expansion of a concept the author had dabbled with in his 1975 book "Danny, the Champion of the World," about a giant who makes frequent visits from "giant territory" to deliver dreams to sleeping Londoners. Both stories featured outcasts and their eventual relationships with their more-normal counterparts among the human community. It seems fated that the two would meld into a project that combined those two powerhouses of children's fantasy.


Producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg's usual production partners, had been trying to make a live-action version since 1991 (an animated version was produced by ITV in 1989), but for one reason or another, never materialized, going through different screenwriters and directors until Melissa Mathison got the job from Dreamworks in 2011 (Spielberg's old production arm, Amblin, is credited as production studio so as to not imply a collaboration between distributor Disney and animation rival Dreamworks—"The Mouse" can get testy about such things). Spielberg came on board in 2014, filming began in March of 2015 and, incredibly, the thing got finished in time for a release by July 2016, including elaborate special effects by WETA that encompasses wholly 90% of the picture. Spielberg's upper ecehelon of collaborators all worked on it—cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and composer John Williams.

Melissa Mathison died, after battling cancer in November 2015, and the film is very early on in the credits dedicated "For Our Melissa"—not unlike Dahl's book being dedicated to his daughter Olivia, who died of measles encephalitis in 1962. A slight air of melancholy hangs over the project, which is fine as it frequently leavens Spielberg's penchant for the sugary, something that has been largely absent from his Senior work as a director.

And The BFG is remarkable—stunning in all sorts of applaudable ways. The effects work is stellar, making up the vast majority of the mise en scene of the movie with a fluidity and attention to detail that draws one in with fascination. This is spectacular world-building, similar to the care and beauty that went into Disney' 2016 version of The Jungle Book from earlier this Summer. And the motion-capture performances of Mark Rylance (who was the very sly stand-out for his underplayed work in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies), Jemaine Clement and the other giant actors is truly amazing, completely stepping over "The Uncanny Valley" as nimbly as if there truly were giants of great stride. Spielberg also retains his reputation as a deft director of children, getting a terrific performance from newcomer Ruby Barnhill as the heroine of the story, Sophie

Also, in this era of "no limits" cinema (thanks to the digital imaging revolution) it is refreshing that Spielberg takes care in the pacing, not throwing the movie into "editing over-drive" as seems to be the norm for "blockbuster-filmmaking" among the Spielberg acolytes. It is nice to see a movie not being made "by stop-watch" and trying to make Guinness by squeezing as many shots into a sequence as possible.

All noteworthy. But, I must confess for all the splendor there is to be seen, the overall effect left me uncharmed. This takes a certain amount of self-examination and confession. I am not the target audience, which is younger by decades. Saying that, I can still be moved by a film aimed at the youngsters and entertained—Pixar makes a regular habit of achieving that. And I'm a big fan of Spielberg as a filmmaker; I think he is the best of the current directors out there, eking out over Martin Scorsese by frames.

I was dissatisfied with the film, however, despite it hitting all its marks, and bringing the wonders and chills of childhood to the fore. Way past my sell-date, I can't imagine the reaction the film will have over young audiences. But, a great children's film should also appeal to adults, as well. And I found that the film dragged (despite my delight that it wasn't a roller-coaster). Bits of business and Spielberg's scrupulous sense of place by making sure the audience knows where it is at all times bogs the movie down no matter how fluid the camera work and intricacy of the choreography. I found myself drifting off, losing focus and the sense of caring about what was going on. Perhaps it was the circumstances under which the film was made. Maybe the filmmakers couldn't bear to part with a single word or sequence that had been worked out by "Our Melissa." Gifted she is, but in the editing room, a filmmaker must be equal parts story-teller and butcher. Maybe the affection for the screen-writer overwhelmed the cruelty of the knife that is required to make a tight, concise film that isn't in love with itself, so determined is its aim to win over the audience.

I always consider a Spielberg film "an event," so I went to an evening-before-opening screening of the film—saw it in 3-D—and sat down in the theater. Easy to find a seat, as I was the only one in the theater. True, 10 pm is past the bed-time of the targetted demographic, but I was still surprised at there being only an audience of one—the film is competing against the new "Tarzan" movie and the latest "Purge" film, both probably more suited for late night audiences. Still, I was shocked at the lack of humanity.

Hard to know what to make of this. Perhaps Spielberg has, indeed, become the director who makes great scenes but can't make a complete movie (as one internet snark put it—I really MUST stop reading comments sections). I don't think so. Bridge of Spies and Lincoln were both terrific films. I think this was a case of too much affection for the material to the point of protection, and maybe some hubris that a Spielberg children's film was a certain home-run. Nothing is certain in the market-place. This one may be big, it may be friendly, but its quite a few feet below giant stage.




Disney with Dahl at the time they were making their "Gremlins" short for the Armed Forces.

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