Roald Dahl's The BFG
**½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B-
starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement
screenplay by Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl
directed by Steven Spielberg
***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C+
starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Robert Redford
screenplay by David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks
directed by David Lowery
by Bill Chambers An inverse E.T. written by that film's screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, The BFG is in some ways archetypal Spielberg. It's another child-led picture to follow E.T., Empire of the Sun, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and The Adventures of Tintin, featuring more of Spielberg's weird hallmark of colourful food and drink (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hook, Jurassic Park). But Spielberg just isn't that guy anymore, even if he always will be in the public imagination (it happens to actors...and it happens to directors, too), and The BFG has the same 'you can't go home again' quality that plagued Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It would be inexplicable within the recent arc of his career if not for the precedent of Tintin, which gave him an appetite for impossible camera moves that can really only be sated when the sets are virtual, as they are for much of The BFG. I can't help thinking of Spielberg's story about how the alien-abduction sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind wasn't working until he went back and added shots of the screws on a vent cover turning by themselves; he thrives in that margin of error, like when he let a sick Harrison Ford shoot the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark and stumbled upon one of the most iconic moments in cinema. The amount of previsualizing necessary to make something like The BFG shrinks that margin considerably, and all foresight and no hindsight makes Steve a dull boy.
The BFG is not an impersonal film, exactly, but most of its personality belongs to Roald Dahl, author of the 1982 novel on which it's based--Spielberg's twinkly affection for new muse Mark Rylance notwithstanding. Rylance, in motion-capture gear, plays the title character, a giant who sneaks around London during the witching hour blowing dreams into the bedrooms of children as they sleep. One night, little insomniac Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) catches a forbidden glimpse of him from the windowsill of her Dickensian orphanage, and so he whisks her back to Giant Country, where the two bicker and bond while steering clear of the other giants, a rough-and-tumble bunch with names like Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler who bully the relatively small BFG ("big friendly giant") and eat "human beans." (BFG doesn't because he's not a "cannybull.") They've lately taken to snacking on children in the Midlands, and once Sophie grasps the degree of their tyranny, she hatches a plot to involve the Queen of England--which turns out to be not that difficult when you have a colossal, benign Freddy Krueger at your disposal.
Mathison and Spielberg have stayed true to the BFG's vernacular as it appears in the beloved book, a combination of Bowery Boys malapropisms and sillyspeak in the manner of Cockney rhyming slang. And if you're looking for something on which to blame The BFG's box-office failure, start there: Dahl's idioglossia is a bedtime pleasure but tedious if not abrasive at feature-length. Moreover, there is something about Spielberg getting literary--and make no mistake, Dahl's nonsense is thoughtful, writerly nonsense--that requires an unconscious suspension of disbelief that's too much for this odd movie to bear. Mathison and Spielberg (and Rylance, perhaps) have also softened the BFG a tad, toning down a brash impatience that possibly reflected Dahl's own temperament/parenting style. (I missed, too, Dahl's image of BFG's tears creating puddles.) The unfortunate result is an increased edge and unpleasantness to the giants' roughhousing, since there's nary a hint of schadenfreude in seeing the daffy, pitiable BFG treated like one of Peter Jackson's digital rag dolls in a scene that distressingly suggests dwarf-tossing. The filmmakers' other modifications of the source material remind that while they may have made E.T., they also collaborated on the gratuitously manipulative "Kick the Can" segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. For instance, Sophie is now the surrogate for a kid who died on BFG's watch--the very same kid, as it happens, who christened him Big Friendly Giant. It's Dahl's villains who should've received this sort of shading, if anything, but they remain typically one-dimensional.
Spielberg, though. There is genius, as you'd expect. In the book, the BFG is self-conscious about his Dumbo ears, something Spielberg--ever the cinematic savant--distils to a shot of BFG primping himself in a high mirror at Buckingham Palace. Caught, he smiles warmly, sheepishly. The BFG is Spielberg's Sling Blade--a movie that, in retrospect, seems to obliquely bear the influence of Dahl's novel. Sophie likes the way he talks, whether or not we do; most of the film is a charming conversation between two childlike, complementary opposites--his stature belying his timidity, hers her moxie--periodically interrupted by robotic effects sequences. It's nevertheless quaint by contemporary standards, something underscored by the bright, deep colours--an unexpected and generous touch, given Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski's trademark desaturations--and by an '80s setting that's treated with the banality it would've been at the time, with the Queen referring to "Ron and Nancy" like people will get it. The BFG's dream powers, as well, date the piece by not being overly sophisticated, though his M.O. resonates with modern viewers struggling to be effectual in an idiocracy: he wants to give children good dreams to make up for the violence of his people. Until Sophie intervenes, it's all he can do to cleanse his conscience. The BFG is a tad fatiguing, even or especially when it attempts to rouse, but it's a kinder, gentler blockbuster, and Rylance does touching work in one of the more transparent MoCap performances.
Disney had a wildly lucrative summer but both The BFG and their other aspiring E.T., Pete's Dragon, had trouble finding audiences, victims of their own defiant squareness. Perhaps in a non-election year, they might've had a fighting chance. With Pete's Dragon, a more or less in-name-only remake of the 1977 live-action/animation hybrid musical (which left a lot of room for improvement--a lot), director/co-writer David Lowery has made a family movie so free of irony that there may no longer exist a cultural context for it, featuring a soundtrack of folk songs (co-written by Lowery) of such a cornball earnestness I was sure they were hipster covers of the original's show tunes. The obvious model is Spike Jonze's Karen O-scored Where the Wild Things Are, although Lowery eschews the purposely rough edges that made it an all-ages art film; this one's aimed at young, unsophisticated viewers, unabashedly and for the most part admirably. I cringed often but didn't mind: Pete's Dragon isn't for me.
Pete (Levi Alexander) is an only child embarking on an "adventure" in the backseat of his parents' car when a deer sends dad careening off the road, instantly orphaning Pete to the forest. A local myth, a big, furry dragon, comes to his aid whom Pete names Elliott, after the dog in a storybook he salvaged from the wreckage. One touch from Pete turns Elliott a vivacious green, cementing their bond. Six years later, Pete (newcomer Oakes Fegley) is a full-fledged nature boy and Elliott his trusty sidekick, their days spent gallivanting in the woods, their nights spent in a firelit cave beneath a treehouse, where Pete soothes Elliott to sleep by reading from his book. It's utopia--until a lumberjack crew shows up. Pete is discovered and dragged back to civilization while Elliott slumbers, sending him into a panic when he wakes up and alerting one of the woodsmen (Karl Urban), a hunter with eyes, eventually, on this King Kong prize, to Elliott's existence. Meanwhile, Pete settles into life with a surrogate family--park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her boyfriend Gavin (Wes Bentley), and Gavin's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence)--as he remembers the creature comforts, but Elliott is never far from his mind. Grace agrees to help him look for the dragon, because his description of the animal jibes with the tall-tale her father, Meacham (Robert Redford, miscast as the town hermit but adorable just the same), has been scaring visitors to his shack with for years.
Yep, that old saw: greedy land developers. Or, at least, one greedy land developer. But any message of anti-capitalism or pro-environmentalism comes second to the friendship between Pete and Elliott, an exquisitely-drawn boy-and-his-dog dynamic--although I wasn't surprised to learn that Lowery is a cat lover, as many of Elliott's gestures are unmistakably feline. He's lovable and heartbreaking, another masterful sim from BFG animators Weta Digital. It's upsetting when Elliott goes berserk at the climax (shades of The Iron Giant fulfilling his programming), since it justifies the idiot adults' fear of him, yet it's also a necessary evil in that it gives Pete the courage to say goodbye. As someone very attached to his kitty (I became a first-time cat owner in 2014, at the age of 39), I was selfishly relieved the picture doesn't turn their parting into an occasion for Marley & Me tears*, and the final tableau of Elliott frolicking with other dragons in the sky is beautiful--or would be if it represented a child's dream of the proverbial farm where all pets go. As a literal resolution, it's pandering and invites the wrong questions. Neither am I a fan of the evasive opening sequence: Pete's reaction to his parents' demise mirrors the film's in that they each move on hastily. Pete's Dragon is a credible work of juvenile fiction because it doesn't much attempt to humour the adults in the audience, but in its aversion to grief it feels vaguely condescending.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Though released over a month apart in theatres, The BFG and Pete's Dragon arrive on Blu-ray within a week of each other in 2.39:1, 1080p presentations. Not counting the fully-animated Tintin, The BFG marks Spielberg's transition to digital filmmaking, a monumental technical and philosophical shift regardless of whether all the CG elements made shooting the picture on celluloid pointless. It looks extremely filmlike in motion here, however, and the transfer's deep blacks reflect Spielberg's old-school values, all but rejecting digital's high sensitivity to light. The Beard's movies always export well to the format and The BFG, with its tactile detail and vibrant colours, is no exception. Although DP Bojan Bazelli, of Pumpkinhead and The Lone Ranger fame, similarly favours high contrasts, his work on Pete's Dragon is curiously flat and dim (at least as presented on disc), with a surprising amount of banding for a new release from a major studio. (Given the more-than-respectable average bitrate of 32 Mbps (with some peaks into the 50s), it seems likely these posterization artifacts are baked into the source.) Detail is pleasingly glassy, though, when it's not slightly too soft, while the all-important greens are nicely variegated. The BFG comes out on top audio-wise as well, not only because it boasts a comparatively electrifying and complex mix typical of its director, but also because the levels of these 7.1 DTS-HD MA tracks don't match. Pete's Dragon sounds shy at reference volume--though once amplified it merely sounds reserved, in keeping with the film's gentle approach.
The BFG is lightly-supplemented for a Spielberg title. The HiDef bonus material begins with Laurent Bouzereau's "Bringing The BFG to Life" (27 mins.), wherein young actress Barnhill hosts a tour of the production during which she's not-infrequently interrupted by talking heads with various personnel--including Dahl's daughter Lucy, who remembers her father leaving her bedroom window open a crack at night then pretending to be the BFG on the other side of it, blowing dreams into her room through a bamboo cane. The hardcore making-of stuff is fascinating (if less than revelatory in the wake of The Jungle Book's extra features), but I was more interested in a tantalizingly brief detour discussing the unproduced WWII gremlins project on which Dahl collaborated with Walt Disney. (Unable to pronounce "Roald," Disney nicknamed him "Stalky.") Kate Capshaw, glimpsed briefly on the set of Bridge of Spies, is said to have opened Spielberg's eyes to the possibility of casting Rylance as the BFG. "Gobblefunk" (3 mins.) is a fast-paced glossary of the BFG's jargon, complete with skill-testing questions. Running 5 minutes is a piece on the casting and complicated interplay of the other nine giants, poetically termed "meat mountains" by Fleshlumpeater himself, Jemaine Clement. It's assigned no onscreen title but called "Giants 101" on the sleeve. Lastly, "Melissa Mathison: A Tribute" (6 mins.) opens and closes with a poignant shot of the late screenwriter's empty director's chair. I like that Amblin executive Kristie Macosko Krieger mentions Kundun (arguably Mathison's finest work and certainly her most underseen), though Spielberg glides right over "Kick the Can" by saying they'd worked together a couple of times before The BFG, "mainly on E.T.." Alas, too much of this segment is self-promotionally focused on her swan song. The teaser for the upcoming live-action Beauty and the Beast cues up on startup.
Over on Pete's Dragon, the fun begins with "Notes to Self: A Director's Diary" (8 mins., HD), in which Lowery reads nuggets from his neglected blog over risible shots of him at his keyboard as film reels unspool in his mind's eye. (Also funny, the re-enactment-feeling inserts of Lowery and Toby Halbrooks hashing out the script.) There's plenty of B-roll, too, as Lowery relates his thoughts on shooting in New Zealand ("primeval"), working with Robert Redford ("What's there to say?"), and more. For what it's worth, one gains an admiration for the imaginative capacities of kids after seeing the pitiful Elliott stand-ins they have to act with on set. Redford describes that whole ridiculous process as "magic" in his narration for "Making Magic" (2 mins., HD), a short documentary on not the visual effects, but rather the "facts" of Elliott, such as that he's a vegetarian. It's sweet. Lowery provides a video introduction to a montage of deleted scenes ("'Disappearing' Moments: Deleted, Alternate and Extended Scenes" (9 mins., HD)), a few of which are in rough shape from a VFX standpoint. While Lowery appears not to have snipped anything essential, a couple of these elisions imply that different endings were conceived for the film. Rounding things out are two HiDef music videos, one for The Lumineers' "Nobody Knows," the other for Lindsey Stirling's "Something Wild," featuring Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. The aforementioned Beauty and the Beast teaser again cues up at the start. The BFG and Pete's Dragon come with DVDs and download vouchers for digital copies of their respective films.
*Likewise and blessedly, Spielberg tones down the separation anxiety at the end of The BFG, having milked that cow dry with E.T.. That said, I'm dismayed that the film never accounts for the fate of Sophie's pet tabby, a loyal companion to her at the orphanage. Spielberg, unlike Lowery, is definitely a dog guy and allows himself to get sidetracked by the Queen's corgis.