Phoning home: “The BFG”

theBFGRoald Dahl published The BFG, his tale of a lonely girl who forms an unlikely friendship with a gangly, otherworldly creature, in 1982, the same year that Steven Spielberg released E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, his tale of a lonely boy who forms… well, you get the idea. If that’s not a parallel enough, these two titans of the popular imagination finally meet 34 years later thanks to a screenplay by E.T.‘s writer, the late Melissa Matheson, to whom the film is lovingly dedicated. Despite the connective tissue, though, the results are mixed—as you might expect, given both the temperaments and very different sensibilities of the respective authors.

It isn’t surprising, as Dahl’s work has long been a difficult proposition for movie adaptations, with auteurs as distinct as Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and Nicolas Roeg all tangling with the material to varying degrees of success (it’s telling that the least particular of the filmmakers, Mel Stuart, made arguably the best big-screen take in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.) Spielberg is a singular as any of those directors, and he isn’t immune to the challenges, either. Confronted with transforming a slenderly-plotted novel into a feature narrative, Spielberg and Matheson establish a framework that moves efficiently and with entertaining incident, though often at the expense of Dahl’s penchant for mood and wordplay over story.

This dissonance makes for an awkward first act, as young orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill, suitably Dahlian) gets swiftly snatched from her London boarding house with minimal fuss or, crucially, sense of danger. These early scenes do showcase the lovely-as-ever synchronicity of Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski, as they glide from an impish, “previously, on our CV” opening shot (panning away from a bridge, ho ho) through the Disneyland-esque streets in which long, probing fingers rummage through the cobblestones and shadows. Sophie is soon spirited away to the remote land of the Big Friendly Giant, who lives in a House of Amblin cave stocked with colourful trinkets and galleons that Dr. Jones would likely hold dear on his archaeological wish list. Curiously underplayed by Mark Rylance, the BFG himself is rendered in uncanny valley motion capture that imagines a photorealistic version of Quentin Blake’s illustrations, much as the film’s world (and its bully giants, variously incarnated by the likes of Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader) is a hodgepodge of computer generated imagery and sets.

The introductory scenes between Sophie and the BFG are pleasant enough, but they’re missing chunks of what made Dahl’s text so deliciously immersive: namely, the BFG’s extended, befuddling conversations with Sophie, in which the writer delighted his audience with the giant’s peculiar scrambling of the English language—with its snozzcumbers and frobscottle and whizzpoppers—and his young friend’s bewildered adjustment to it (once she’d overcome her fear of being eaten, that is.) The BFG’s weird wordplay is sprinkled throughout the film, yet the book’s early unease is sidelined in order to goose the magical bond between monster and child; a Spielberg house speciality that doesn’t entirely gel with Dahl’s sweet-and-sour servings.

For better and worse, this dynamic is allowed to flourish in the film’s pretty middle section, an incandescent reverie set in the BFG’s magic mirror dreamland. Dahl might have scoffed but Spielberg is in assured territory, rife with goggle-eyed, backlit close-ups and John Williams’ florid orchestration whipping the spectacle into a mini symphony of childhood wonder. As Sophie and the BFG chase and bottle dreams—glowing and dancing points of light, like their mischievous cousins in Close Encounters—Spielberg and Matheson explicitly lean on their earlier masterpiece, right down to the woodland forest and Hollywood night sky that’s one shooting star away from a silhouetted BMX sailing across the moon. There’s a couple of exquisite shadow play compositions, too, that draw direct lines to the sleeping kids’ bedrooms of the aforementioned Encounters or The Lost World or even Hook, that demonstrate Spielberg hasn’t lost that shorthand magic, nor the ability to find creative new ways to execute it on screen. Only the very churlish would deny this sequence’s digital backlot splendour, with its looking glass lakes and astral trees and swelling music.

Except it’s not even close to tapping the spirit of Dahl, a man whose writing for children was so great because it unflinchingly rejected moralising and sentiment—the latter of which Spielberg, at his weakest, can’t resist, no matter how complicated his childhood idylls have become over the years. This sequence also brings to the fore some of the film’s more irksome elements, such as the script’s unnecessary addition of another child who was once a friend to the BFG, presumably to provide the titular creature with more dimension or a sense of loss. Whatever. If there’s one thing Dahl’s characters have never needed—as Burton’s adaptation of Charlie found out the hard way—it’s backstory.

Still, it’s a minor annoyance, and it’s when Spielberg takes a back seat and allows himself to be in the service of Dahl that the film finds its sweet spot. That’s none more evident than in the film’s jubilant final act, in which the director permits the author’s pure pleasures (namely, food and farting) to take centre stage in a joyous set piece in Buckingham Palace, while cheerfully deflating the pomposity of the royal family. Spielberg has never counted comedy among his fortes, but left to Dahl’s design the film hits as close as it comes to a funky, off-kilter stride here—not for nothing was this sequence the one that draw gales of laughter from the kids in attendance at this particular screening. Spielberg’s playfulness, as it so often does, trumps his sentiment on this occasion. There’s even a bizarrely specific Reagan gag, which, with the story’s oddball military interventionist ending, practically recasts the movie as an alternate 1982 period piece; one in which children the world over are befriending creatures from the id.1

Perhaps it’s simply that Spielberg dusted off a decades-old Matheson script as a way to honour her memory. Whatever it was that possessed him to make this curio at this point in his career, we may never know. That The BFG is ultimately more interesting as a refraction of its director’s work than its author’s is disappointing, but as an echo chamber of the former’s late-period tendencies it’s fascinating, maybe even essential viewing.

Originally published at 4:3

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