Friday, July 1, 2016

The BFG: A colossal triumph

The BFG (2016) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG, for fantasy peril and some scary scenes

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.1.16

Roald Dahl’s children’s books are cherished for all sorts of reasons, including his ability to concoct astounding creatures and astonishing realms that require a reader’s imagination, because such wonders couldn’t possibly be replicated on the big screen.

After gaining the trust of her immense new friend (Mark Rylance), Sophie (Ruby Barnhill)
learns of his skill at catching and bottling "dream stuff," which then can be used to help
London's denizens sleep more peacefully.
At least, not until quite recently.

Dahl has done quite well by Hollywood over the years, with fabulous adaptations of The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr. Fox, not to mention a couple of quite popular renditions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The many talented individuals behind those films notwithstanding, nothing approaches the pure magic — the jaw-dropping sense of wonder — delivered by director Steven Spielberg and an amazing team of collaborators, in The BFG.

Back in the day, the producers of Christopher Reeve’s first Superman film promised that we’d believe a man can fly. Well, Spielberg and his crew make us believe that giants stride the earth. The verisimilitude is so natural, so persuasive, that we often disregard the boring technicalities of special effects, choosing instead to accept the fantastic at face value: no small thing, in these jaded times.

Everything is orchestrated to perfection: the late Melissa Mathison’s poignant, deftly sculpted screenplay (her final completed assignment); Janusz Kaminski’s lavish cinematography, rich with warm color tones that enhance the film’s cozy atmosphere; the ingenious production design and set decoration by Rick Carter and Elizabeth Wilcox; and — most particularly — John Williams’ delicately intricate score.

Williams, recently the first composer to be honored with the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, is no stranger to ornately layered soundtracks and iconic character themes. But even in a lengthy career distinguished by scores of memorable scores, this one is one of his finest.

Williams’ music for The BFG is all-encompassing; it feels as if every scene, every character, has its own theme. His score plays like a continuous, massive symphony that brings Spielberg’s handling of this gentle parable to even greater emotional heights.

Dahl published his book in 1982, and Spielberg’s film is set in the same decade. It opens with a slow pan of late-night London, Kaminski employing some sort of cinematographic trick that makes the streets, vehicles and buildings seem somehow smaller than usual: almost like an immense, three-quarter-size fairy tale village. We glide into an orphanage, where the matron’s final rounds are watched, surreptitiously, by 10-year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill).

The precocious, bespectacled Sophie suffers from insomnia and an active imagination: She has heard that it’s not safe to wander the streets after midnight, and that it’s equally unwise to step out onto exposed balconies. We already know the reason, having glimpsed a huge shambling something with an uncanny ability to blend into shadows when passing adults glance in its direction.

Ah, but the inquisitive Sophie ignores her own guidance, parting the curtains and opening the window of the upper-story orphanage dormitory. The result: She is snatched by an immense hand, folded into a cloth carryall, and transported — literally by leaps and bounds — to her huge captor’s equally imposing home.

This creature’s intimidating size notwithstanding, Sophie discovers that he’s a gentle, oddly charming soul; she dubs him the Big Friendly Giant, usually shortened to BFG. He’s played to fussy, aw-shucks perfection by Mark Rylance, who recently won an Oscar for his supporting role in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Rylance’s work here is many, many times better — as unlikely as that seems — and he’s the final, utterly perfect ingredient in this tasty recipe.

The BFG isn’t terribly well educated, his “learning” having been confined to what he gleans from the tiny human books that he attempts to read via a huge magnifying glass. He mangles the English language with oblivious charm, which prompts frequent eye-rolling by Sophie, all too eager to correct him. Between the BFG’s malapropisms and jargon specific to “Giant Country,” pretty much everything that escapes Rylance’s mouth is hilarious, particularly when punctuated by the BFG’s enormous, expressive ears.

The BFG may be huge to Sophie, but he’s actually the local runt, his genteel manner and human affectations — such as clothing — making him the frequent target of bullying by larger, nastier neighbors such as Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) and half a dozen others. Worse yet, all these other giants regard children as tasty delicacies, whereas the BFG is a confirmed vegetarian, subsisting on a disgusting bulbous green known as a snozzcumber.

Sophie and her new companion become friends, despite the dangers inherent in her hanging about; all giants have a keen sense of smell, and she must hide whenever Fleshlumpeater charges into BFG’s home. As the girl’s bond with BFG strengthens, he shares his other big secret: Each evening he visits “Dream Country,” where he catches and bottles dreams, later taking them to London and using a huge, trumpet-like device to blow them into the minds of sleeping children and their parents.

Dream Country, like everything else in this film, is visualized ingeniously: all sparkly radiance and pixie dust, with free-flowing happy dreams in soft pastels, distinguished from the angry, agitated red of nightmares.

But after observing the dynamic between BFG and his scarier peers, Sophie realizes that this uneasy “truce” is unlikely to last; somehow, the other giants must be dealt with. Permanently.

Cue an even more improbable third act, and the involvement of The Queen (Penelope Wilton); her handmaid Mary (Rebecca Hall) and butler Mr. Tibbes (Rafe Spall), along with various generals in the British Army and Royal Air Force. In a film laden with often quiet comedy, nothing is more droll than the typically unflappable British sangfroid on display, as The Queen takes command of the situation.

This film’s delights are too numerous to tabulate. Most crucially, it’s a poignant, well-developed study of friendship between two quite distinct individuals: a relationship that gives the story its emotional heft. It’s also possible to simply sit back and marvel at the endlessly clever visuals: the ways in which Sophie navigates the vast environment of BFG’s home, and — alternatively — the care BFG must exercise, while maneuvering through London’s correspondingly minuscule streets and dwellings.

Then, too, we can be in awe of the care with which Spielberg has assembled every single thread of this remarkable tapestry, with every stitch just so.

Rylance is thoroughly believable, moving with the slow, lumbering gait of an immense creature. At first, the BFG never quite knows what to do with Sophie, and it’s fun to watch suggestions and decisions slowly work their way across Rylance’s expressive features. At times, he’s like a naïve, sheltered uncle who never quite figured out modern society; then again, he’s quick-witted and resourceful when it matters (mostly each time Fleshlumpeater crashes through the door).

Barnhill is adorable, her wide eyes and impulsive behavior utterly perfect. She revels in Sophie’s youthfully condescending superiority, each time she gets to correct BFG’s grammar; then, at the blink of an eye, she becomes a lonely, frightened and vulnerable little girl, relying on her new friend for protection. Spielberg has a long and successful track record, when it comes to spotting and working with impressive young talent — think of little Drew Barrymore, in E.T. — and Barnhill is another winner.

Wilton is a hoot as The Queen, and the various giants — aside from Freshlumpeater and Bloodbottler, we have Manhugger, Gizzardgulper, Bonecruncher, Meatdripper, Maidmasher, Childchewer and Butcher Boy — are delightfully, appallingly gross. And, yes, more than a little scary.

Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn carefully pace this fantasy, blending lighthearted sequences — Sophie’s efforts to stroll amid massive mugs, plates and other household items that we take for granted — with bursts of potential peril, hiccups of high comedy (thanks to a fizzy drink known as frobscottle), and all-important dollops of aching tenderness.

Pay attention, as the story reaches its conclusion, to the way Williams hushes the lush orchestral underscore, in favor of a solo piano theme: Rarely will you find a better, more striking example of the power of music, to enhance a scene.

The perfect end to a perfect film.

The BFG won’t merely be a strong presence during this summer movie season; it’s guaranteed to become a prized part of every child’s home library, and destined to be shared with generations to come. Impeccably mounted children’s fantasies are a rare and precious thing — Martin Scorsese’s handling of Brian Selznick’s Hugo also comes to mind — and they deserve to be cherished.


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