Steven Spielberg and Disney. It’s as if Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were on the same basketball team in their primes. If Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley did a duet. If George Carlin and Kevin Hart did a standup routine together. If Emilia Clarke joined me for dinner (hint, hint).
I’m sure there are good reasons why it took so long for this marriage to occur but the significance of it simply can’t be overstated. Spielberg is pretty easily the most iconic director of our time and probably in film history. Disney is an American establishment that is a (sorry, THE) juggernaut in the entertainment industry. This just had to happen.
Throw Roald Dahl into the mix and we have quite the concoction of legendary entertainment figures. I’m personally not familiar with the source material used for this film as Dahl just wasn’t someone whose work I grew up on. Nonetheless, it’s hard for a film geek not to be excited about this combination of talent all coming together for the first time. Considering my complete ignorance of Dahl’s work, I’ll be focusing solely on what I saw in the film, and not on how it fares as an adaptation. Honestly, that’s not truly important, anyway.
What I saw was a return to the more magical Spielberg of days (seemingly) gone by. There is a whimsy and wonder to The BFG that has been largely absent from the cinema, lately, and it felt nice to have that sort of experience, again. It was sort of like returning to your childhood home for the first time in years. The film is permeated by an innocence and refreshing naiveté to the modern issues of society. In that way (and many others, which probably goes without saying), it stands in stark contrast to The Purge: Election Year, which also opens this weekend. If you’re feeling passionate about current events, see Election Year. If you want to pretend that it’s a simpler time from decades ago, The BFG is your go-to.
Without question, Spielberg’s biggest weapon in The BFG is Mark Rylance. This is Rylance’s second team-up with Spielberg, with the first being last year’s tremendous Bridge of Spies. That one landed Rylance a well-deserved Oscar, so it’s easy to understand why he’s back for another go-round (and then a third in Spielberg’s upcoming adaptation of Ernest Cline’s ambitious novel Ready Player One). Rylance is the heart of the film. His BFG is as endearing a character as I can recall. Between his well-intentioned fumbling of the English language, his victimization at the hands of other unspecified antagonists, and his heart-warming, eyes-and-mouth smile, one just wants to give him a huge hug and thank him for filling us with hope and optimism. I don’t know how else to say it other than that Rylance is just a pleasure to watch as he brings this character to life in a way that no one else could have. If this film had been in the first 50 of the March to 100, he almost certainly would have been a part of 50/50, Part 1 – The Top Five Standout Performances.
As has been the case with quite a few other recent films, The BFG is absolutely gorgeous. The character design is perfect: endearing when necessary and off-putting when need be. But the set design is what especially soars. The architecture and atmosphere contributes greatly towards manufacturing that feeling of innocence that I described earlier. It pops off the screen in 3D and really immerses the viewer in the film. Even though Spielberg’s name is in a class of is own and Rylance is the rock star of the production, this film is a true team effort and everybody comes through.
If I have one point of contention, it’s with the story. Again, as an adaptation, I have no idea how this compares to the original, so I don’t know what gets credited to Dahl and what gets credited to Spielberg and crew. There was some toilet humor which never works for me as it requires no wit (it will work for the kids, though. And it really worked for the lady behind me.). But, beyond that, there were little to no propulsive story elements. A strong story needs to establish an unresolved element quickly and needs to keep unresolved points in play until the end of the film. There was almost none of that here. It was more along the lines of girl-meets-giant and then stuff.
Now, this didn’t prevent the film from being entertaining. Nor did it keep me from wanting to watch. But the film could have theoretically ended at almost any time and there would have been no loose ends to tie up. So, while it was entertaining and fun, I wouldn’t call it compelling. There is nothing that keeps the audience on the hook, waiting.
Spielberg continues to show why he’s the greatest of all time. For example, he handles pseudo-English in a way that is still understandable, unlike, say, the Wachowskis did with their Cloud Atlas. And he puts the story and the film ahead of himself. His name doesn’t even appear in the opening credits (it’s titled as Roald Dahl’s The BFG), and it’s clear that he has the confidence in his work and his cast/crew to allow them to do the talking for him. There are some new-age directors that could learn from his example.
But at the end of it all, this is the story of the genesis of a friendship. The nontraditional storytelling will more than likely go unnoticed by most. It’s enjoyable, regardless, and representative of a better time – and a more magical style of filmmaking. For me, it was very reminiscent of Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Should you choose to see it, I hope you feel that way, too.
Now, bring on Ready Player One!
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