Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review: "The BFG" Brings Back the Spielberg Magic That We've Been Missing

Scene from The BFG
Everyone has that moment in their lives when they first discover the magic that is Steven Spielberg. For many, it was how terrifying the water was in Jaws; or how cloning dinosaurs in Jurassic Park was a bad idea. There's an unabashed amazement that comes with realizing the potential of cinema on a grand scale with the power to produce works that wouldn't seem fathomable on anything less. For kids of today, the magic of Spielberg may seem like a thing of the past, especially with back-to-back serious dramas like War Horse, Lincoln, and last year's excellent Bridge of Spies. However, the Spielberg that brought magic to family films is back with his take on Roald Dahl in The BFG. Lead by Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill, the fantasy adventure film may not be quite as captivating as the director's finest works, but it sure is a lot of fun while taking the viewer into a new and exciting landscape that only works because of Spielberg's assurance as a director, and we're all the more better for it.

Sophie (Barnhill) is an orphan who cannot sleep and discovers that there is a giant wandering the streets of her British neighborhood. When their paths cross, she is taken to Giant Country, where she discovers that her captor is no more than a humble giant with a clumsy yet charming dialogue, and several aggressive neighbors who will eat up Sophie without warning. There's tenderness in Rylance's portrayal of The BFG, most notably in his voice. With a small grumble mixed in, there's a sense of weariness to his character that gives him history. Considering that he has a speech impediment familiar to those of Dahl's linguistics, he somehow communicates best when he's mangling words. It can be accused of being cutesy language, but actually adds to the simple, uneducated and lower class nature of The BFG. It may be dizzying at points, but Rylance's delivery makes for one of the kookiest and unique family film characters in years.

Another issue that may detract some is that the animation is initially disorienting. Giant Country is full of giants who all look haggard or in the case of Rylance lanky with a neck that is a little too long. However, the beautiful Scotland backdrop where it was filmed is beautiful and helps to create a mystical landscape of wonder, some of the most inventive in any adaptation of Dahl's work period. Even if Spielberg's choice to work with computers instead of practical effects (though how could you do it, really?)  may bother some, it actually begins to add to one of the director's most visually playful films in many, many years. While the predominant portion of the film takes place in Giant Country and sees Barnhill running around massive backdrops, it does shift things to Britain, where Rylance comically eats dinner atop a grand piano and another stool. If the film fails in any department, it's not visually.

What is possibly the most underrated sensibility to The BFG is Spielberg's direction, which manages to work despite being often set in green screen territory and with characters of various portions running around each other. There is a scene towards the middle of the film that features Barnhill running through Giant Country as the nasty giants try to capture her. It's shot like a single take, beautifully cutting from the middle of a tree to a water slide while comically hiding from peril. It's a scary moment, but one that largely works because of how the camera moves rapidly without losing focus of the task at hand. It's a perfect blend of animation and live action in ways that the director has been working on since The Adventures of Tintin (his last family film). Where most directors would get flack for their direction in moments like this, Spielberg never lets go of the tension, which results in something more fluid and exciting, especially to a younger audience.

Yes, there's a certain juvenile core to the film. Rylance does spout several silly words over the course of the running time. There is a whole subplot involving flatulent drinks. However, one cannot help but feel awe in what Spielberg has pulled off in creating cinema that uses modern capabilities to the best of his advantage. The story may be silly, but there's a human core to it that allows for something more inspiring to happen. It's full of whimsy and the action is always engaging. If nothing else, it makes one long for the playful Spielberg to come back a little more often and treat us to whatever adaptation (or original property for that matter) that he sees fit. The only sad part is that it won't feature another delightful adaptation with the late Melissa Mathison (who also wrote E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial), whose script if anything else manages to balance tones in a way that could've easily been suffocating. Instead, it creates magic out of every moment and shows the potential of what family entertainment can be.

The BFG may go down as an oddity in Spielberg's massive filmography, especially in an era where he's taken up serious dramas full time. He is one of cinema's greatest voices, and it's tough to really argue that his latest is a retread of any sort. If anything, it's a nice breath of fresh air in a time where films like Finding Dory need emotional subtext to be good. This likely won't be on anyone's favorite Spielberg lists, but it should serve as a reflection of why he's been revered for so long. He has a gift for movie magic, and his ability to make something that is at times nonsensical into wonderful big screen entertainment. Rylance is likely to become a family staple for this role thanks to his endearing and charismatic turn. Hopefully Barnhill has a great career ahead of her as well. Whatever it may be, this film is a whole lot of fun and will fill the quota for those wanting to escape into a new and unexplored world that mostly works because of the talent behind it. 

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