Better Than Your Ordinary Whizzpopper
The prevalent attitude that it’s acceptable to skimp when it comes to children’s entertainment may not be dead, but it’s being challenged. This is, of course, a good thing, even though everyone knows that kids are particularly non-discerning consumers of films, TV, books, games and music. Not to get on a soapbox, but they are forged to stay that way by lack of visual language education, a mantle passed down for generations. Yet, the entertainment industry’s modus operandi of generating subpar work for kids is challenged just often enough to bring new hope. Decades ago, one such challenger was British author Roald Dahl. Today, there is Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg, despite his many polished and accomplished forays into the distinctly grown-up realm of historical drama, will always be known first and foremost as an expert spinner of cinematic yarn. Perusing a list of his greatest hits is a goosebump-raising, grin-inducing venture, checking off one monumental work after another. Jaws… Close Encounters of the Third Kind… Raiders of the Lost Ark… E.T. The Extra Terrestrial… and on and on, well beyond Jurassic Park. These movies are so good that it never occurred to their vast mainstream adult audiences that they always were, at heart, kids stuff. That is, kids stuff in the grandest, most unashamed sense.
In the meantime though, Spielberg has expended a lot of energy looking to prove that he’s grown up. Lincoln… Munich… Amistad, and others. How refreshing is it, then, that his most effective display of “grown-up sensibilities” is his first out-and-out blatant kids movie, lovingly based on a modern children’s classic by the great Roald Dahl? With The BFG, he’s lovingly crafted a highest of high-end kids’ movie. He gets to fully embrace both his grey hair & wrinkles and his well-earned reputation as a storyteller of the fantastic; an energetic grandpa regaling the grandkid in all of us.
The result is The BFG is at all times a gentle, gentile, and compulsively watchable tale, despite an inherent lackadaisical quality stemming entirely from the source material. That source, the 1983 kid lit book by Dahl, is fantastic in its whimsy and balderdash: Made up fun-to-read-aloud words (Buzzwangles! Whizpoppers! And of course, the dreaded snozzcumbers!), imagination tinged with British nationalism, and just a whiff of gaseous crudity. Spielberg doesn’t stoop to bathroom humor often, but when he does, he goes big with it. Jurassic Park gave us that massive pile of triceratops poop. The BFG affords him telling of the world’s most ornate and elaborately staged fart joke. Smiles all around, because as these guys know, a good fart joke is always funny – especially to a kid.
If ever a film captured the spirit of Dahl’s high-quality kids stories, this is it. The BFG may never be the embraced modern classic that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is (or, maybe it will be!), but Spielberg is entirely in step with the author and this story. From the fantastically realized home of the protagonist giant to the subtlety maintained twinkle in the concept itself, the director’s shared affinity for concocting and sharing dreams is completely apparent.
The movie, is done entirely the director’s way. With respect to recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance in the lead role, Spielberg himself is the biggest name associated with this project. Rylance, who won an Oscar for playing a hangdog Soviet secret agent who gets caught in Spielberg’s previous film Bridge of Spies, is absolutely note-perfect as the titular Big Friendly Giant. Although the character is, in finality, a computer generated presence, Rylance is the beaming heart and soul of it all, his ultra-expressive eyes telling reams of drama, loneliness, soul, and pure heart in every moment. This, quite frankly, is the one he should’ve won his Oscar for. He doesn’t need the conventional English language to communicate his character’s joys, hurts, anxieties and pleasures.
The little orphan girl Sophie, the true lead character of the piece, is played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill. Considering that Spielberg’s casting director probably considered every little girl who’s ever acted on camera for this part, it must be said that they picked the right kid. Barnhill’s Sophie is the right blend of proper-minded corrector and awe-struck youth. When she faces the larger, evil giants, it is good and scary like it needs to be, even as the CG artifice is always a visible part of it. Although communicating the sheer scale of the giants’ world through he puny physical presence serves the film well, Sophie is never a truly “small character. (Scale differences are notoriously tough to communicate on screen, but Spielberg makes it look easy.)
Although The BFG is never boring, it’s lack of chases, snark, chaos and cheap gags would render it wholly unattractive in terms of what passes for children’s entertainment at the major studios. Further proof then, that when Steven Spielberg decides to do any particular project, everyone will move heaven and earth to get in league with him. (Even though he claims no one wanted to make Lincoln, so much so it almost ended up premiering on HBO. Making movies is never easy, apparently even for Steven Spielberg). This marks, believe it or not, the filmmaker’s very first pairing with Walt Disney Pictures. Together, they can now go ahead and take over the world. Their conquering would be preferable to so many other would-be dictators.
Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg may not immediately seem like a winning combination. The BFG, as fine as it is as both a book and movie, is neither man’s crowning achievement. Yet, it’s so wonderfully indicative of both creators as to where they were in their seasoned careers when it came along for them. They will always be remembered as giants in their fields, but The BFG gives us reason to consider them friendly as well.