Spielberg’s The BFG steps lightly
Just in time for Brexit comes Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, the first time the director has employed England’s army as a deus ex machina since the grotesquely pro-colonial Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This time, it’s not Indian cultists who must be put down by the redcoats. It’s the ill-tempered, child-chomping giants of Roald Dahl’s 1982 book, and they more or less have it coming.
A few military helicopters are the extent to which the real world intrudes upon — or much exists in — this often lovely storybook confection, the last screenplay by Melissa Mathison, who wrote Spielberg’s E.T. (which came out the same year as Dahl’s novel) and who died in 2015. A previous version was long planned as a vehicle for Robin Williams, renewing his old Aladdin visa for Disney as the gentle, vegetarian title character, Big Friendly Giant, and perhaps eclipsing memories of Hook. Instead, the movie capitalizes on an undeniable resemblance between the great English actor Mark Rylance (who won an Oscar this year for his work in Spielberg’s 2015 movie, Bridge of Spies) and Quentin Blake’s original illustrations for Dahl’s book. Rylance, motion-captured to surrealistically convincing but not distracting effect, becomes one of cinema’s most immediately lovable child companions.
This he does even more with his voice — sometimes naive and amused, sometimes aching with old knowledge — than with what looks to have been, pre-digital alteration, a rubbery, kinetic performance. You don’t have to know anything about Rylance’s stage career to recognize his injection of Shakespearean fool and Dickensian protector into this role. But you also don’t have to find anything classical in his work here to applaud the moving results. And he (with Mathison’s help) makes the utmost of Dahl’s elastic polysyllababble-abble lexicon.
As Sophie, the 10-year-old whisked by the BFG from her orphanage to the giant’s pastel idyll, Ruby Barnhill is excellent: poised and unself-consciously funny. She reminds you why Spielberg, early in his career, earned his child-whisperer reputation. Called on to be afraid, Barnhill, like the best of the young actors in Spielberg movies, never shrieks or betrays panic. Her Sophie is as clear-headed as the one on the page (“The Giant is running fast … because he is hungry and he wants to get home as quickly as possible, and then he’ll have me for breakfast”), and modern-seeming enough to identify with. Which is saying something, considering that she’s an insomniac who’s been kidnapped by a giant who turns out to be more like a puppy — and that she’s at risk of being forcefully digested by one or more very large men.
BFG wants her to hide, but she’s eager to assist his excursions into the collection (and, Mathison’s addition, the recombination and distribution) of dreams. As metaphors go, Dahl’s Dream Country is as ready-made for Spielberg as any writer could have conceived, and the director doesn’t disappoint. He and longtime collaborators Janusz Kaminski (camera), Rick Carter (production designer) and John Williams (you know) turn this sequence into a stand-alone fantasia (akin to the spacewalk in WALL-E), a breathtaking concerto within a sometimes too legato symphony. It’s said of too many movies now that they couldn’t have been made simply with lenses and light; here, for a little while, is high-tech filmmaking that justifies itself, that feels more magical than manufactured. (I’d like to watch it again without the burden of 3-D.)
Eventually, however, traditional structure must be serviced, and enemies dealt with. Sophie’s, and the BFG’s, are led by Fleshlumpeater, first among the hungrier, less jolly giants in the (offscreen) devouring of humans. Unlike Rylance’s character, this creature doesn’t look like the actor at work, Jemaine Clement (or sound much like the role for which he’s most known in this country, half of the low-energy singing duo in Flight of the Conchords). If you recognize his voice, though, you appreciate his work here a little more for the unlikeliness of its witty menace. He thickens his gangly Kiwi accent into estuary pudding, giving Fleshlumpeater the sound of a parade-float Mick Jagger with a weaponized bottom lip. (Other faces and voices are smart casting but, correctly, nondescript outside their relative maternalism, paternalism or threat.)
On the radio last week, a few local children’s librarians were asked what makes Dahl’s books so enduring — enduring enough, for instance, that film studios keep attempting to translate them into broadly appealing family entertainments. The response was some positive chatter about the author’s storytelling skills. That’s fair: Readers and moviegoers do indeed seek rewards in a good this-happened-then-that-happened-and-then-this-happened cycle. But among the essences unique to Dahl’s phantasms is a matter-of-fact acceptance that a fear’s absurdity doesn’t make it less real. You don’t have to be Oliver Twist to feel dread swirl around your ankles. But that’s a private tide, and the sensation that an author understands your freaked-out inner monologue is at the heart of early reading. (So, in Dahl’s case, are the malleability of language and the spectacular ridiculousness of the grown-up world.) For that reason, it’s also a difficult thing to sell onscreen. The BFG isn’t selling, though. It’s showing, mostly gently and mostly beautifully.