Sunday, July 3, 2016

Bedtime Stories: THE BFG

It’s hard not to see something of director Steven Spielberg in the humble craftsman at the center of his lovely adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. He’s a big friendly giant who hears all the hopes and fears of mankind, harvests magic from a land of imagination, and mixes them together lovingly into dreams and nightmares. He keeps them bottled up, stored in his workshop for safekeeping. Then, in the middle of the night, he gingerly steps out of giant country and into our world, toting his spells to send our slumbering minds drifting into tailor-made dreamlands. He, like Spielberg, knows how to cast the right spells for the just the right effects, speaking directly to our hearts and minds with a purity of intention and skill. He’s a master at what he does, and when his art starts to glow before our eyes, we know we’re in good hands. Here is a movie of such prodigious filmmaking skill deployed so gently and so casually that the trick is how easy it looks. Spielberg’s enchanting approach to family filmmaking is to allow the story to unfold at its own pace and tone, inviting empathy and letting magic appear without overly insisting on itself.

As the movie begins the towering BFG (a digital creation soulfully embodied with a sweet melancholy in Mark Rylance’s performance) encounters Sophie, a little girl (Ruby Barnhill). A precocious child, she spends her nights unhappily roaming the halls of her orphanage. She has insomnia, she’ll solemnly report, explaining her habits as well as her unfamiliarity with dreaming. Obviously it’s quite a scary thing to see a lumbering giant outside your bedroom window in the dark stillness of three o’clock in the morning. Scarier still is the moment when a hand the size of Sophie’s entire body slides in past the curtains and picks her up, spiriting the poor girl away to a hidden realm where she cowers behind enormous everyday objects. There’s a moment of unease at the initial kidnapping, but the girl quickly sees there’s nothing threatening about this gigantic man. He’s harmless, shrugging as he explains he had no choice but to take her with him. Can’t risk being reported and hunted by “human beans,” the linguistically tangled chap says.

This is a potentially worrisome situation, but Spielberg is quick to comfort the audience by revealing the BFG to be the runt of giant land. A scrawny, lanky sweetheart with twitchy big ears and a goofy grin, he’s much shorter than the others of his kind. He is picked on by the other giants (voiced by Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and others) for being a vegetarian instead of a cold-hearted cannibal gobbling up human beans three meals a day. Their diet is only implied, but certainly puts our Friendly Giant in a position of sympathy. He just wants to work his magic in peace, but the bullies push him around, hector him about “vegi-terribles,” and start sniffing around when they smell the scent of a girl-sized snack. Sophie sees in him a loneliness she recognizes, and quickly comes to trust him. The thrust of the plot sees her protected by him, and brought into the secret dream factory he’s made his life’s work. They become buddies, trusting one another to do what’s best. There’s charming storybook logic here – surely it’s no coincidence Sophie is reading with a flashlight under the covers when he appears – as two kindred spirits bond over a desire to enjoy a life of peace, kindness, and friendship.

It’s a pleasure to exist in this movie’s world, unhurried and relaxed, allowing long dialogue scenes between the very tall man and the small girl to stretch out, the awe of the fantastical interaction seeming simply normal while seesawing in pleasing tongue-twister tangles of eccentric giant jargon and childlike innocence. Giant Country is a fantasy drawn in convincing and warm detail of delightful picture book simplicity and appeal. Spielberg is always adept at integrating effects and live action with a brilliant eye. Here he allows the digital space to create a light floating camera, and a sense of space for real emotional rapport. It’s not easy to generate a relationship between characters who only share the frame through trickery, but here he draws it out perfectly. The world itself – a humble hovel, a cave of dreams, a field of grumpy giants, swirling clouds, a glowing tree in an upside-down reflecting pool – is striking and comforting, representing the most primary colors cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has ever had in a single shot. It sparkles with pop-up book confidence.

Spielberg, and the wonderful screenplay by Melissa Mathison (the late, great writer of E.T., The Black Stallion, and Kundun), respects children’s capacity for comprehension, their ability to put together visual puzzle pieces of plot and follow a story’s imagination. The movie unfolds with a dreamlike trust in its fantasy’s power to carry away all who are receptive to it. There’s conflict, yes, as the mean giants need to be stopped before they become a deadly danger to Sophie. But the real core of conflict is found in two lonely people who make a connection, a fragile, unsustainable friendship that might as well be imaginary, but has the potential to leave them both more confident and self-sufficient individuals. It’s moving, but not condescending. The avuncular BFG (Rylance’s non-threatening eyes twinkling behind the effects) and the adorable Sophie (Barnhill the sweetest orphan this side of Annie) need only figure out the right dream – assembled in a Kinetoscope blender casting flickering shadows on the dream factory wall like Plato’s cave – to explain the situation to someone who can help. What a perfect metaphor for storytelling, and a gentle child’s-eye-view to conflict resolution.

Eventually the film reaches a poignant resolution through quietly magisterial whimsy that flips the fish-out-of-water scenario, bringing the BFG to new people and places. (It’s great fun watching surprising characters interact with his enormity, including struggling to make him feel at home in the human world, culminating in, no joke, one of the best instances of flatulence in cinema history.) But there’s no cruelty here, or in the eventual solutions to everyone’s problems. The movie’s gentility is a much-needed tonic for a cruel and cynical world. Spielberg’s masterful use of the moviemaking tools at his disposal is at once classical restraint and clear-eyed use of the cutting-edge. The result is a film of genuine absorbing, heartwarming magic. Refreshingly tender and thoughtful – like a giant gingerly moving a child’s tiny glasses to safety – the movie is soothingly composed and playfully imaginative. It’s welcome respite from all those family entertainments, good and bad alike, operating with manic panic of allowing downtime. The BFG has patience, the visual poise to play out in long takes and to treat its digital creations as wonders instead of routine spectacle. Best of all, it has the confidence to let small, delicate feelings animate a production so big and strong.

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