With the continuing blitz of summer blockbusters wherein blocks get busted in boring repetition, let’s lament the fate of the big, friendly giant.
He was funny, he was clumsy but he could be graceful under pressure, he was confused, he was resolute. And he made a life-long friend, something that can be pretty hard to do no matter how tall or short you are.
He had Roald Dahl, the Phillip K. Dick of juvenile literature, to write the original story and Steven Spielberg behind the camera to tell his cinematic story. What could go wrong?
Apparently the audience not caring for something different, something unusual, something not so explosion-ey and bang-ey and frenetic, that’s what. Many of those same people who stayed away in droves were the same ones who often decry a lack of imagination and the cookie-cutter look of the usual summer movie fare. Talking blarney, it seems.
The BFG was a meditative piece on friendship and belonging, with a dash of slapstick humor that involved the queen of England. It had gorgeous visuals of London at night and of landscapes seen mostly in dreams. Yeah, the really big giants were ugly and noisy, but you knew those bullies were going to get their comeuppance, again with the help of the queen. Perhaps that was one of the problems — the brutes were left isolated with only slaps on their big hands as punishment instead of being blown all over the landscape by a revenge-minded hero.
The casting of the main giant also might have been problematic. Rumors say Robin Williams had been considered for the role, but that ended with his death. Spielberg chose Mark Rylance, not exactly a big name among American celebrities. Probably because he’s British — but who better to play a Dahl character than a Brit? He’s also a damn fine actor, as anyone who’s seen him as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall on PBS can attest. He has a Shakespearean pedigree — including artistic director of the Shakespeare Globe Theater in London — and also is a playwright. He played the spy Rudolf Abel in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and got the attention of American moviegoers when he won an Academy Award for that role. An odd choice, you might think, for a kiddie movie, but Rylance is an actor’s actor. He’s been CGI’ed to exaggerate facial features — the BFG has ears large enough to use as sails — but it doesn’t hide his acting chops.
The story centers on Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a lonely orphan who can’t sleep. In the dead of night, she sees the BFG — Big Friendly Giant, in case you were wondering — who panics and grabs her right out of her bed and lopes off with her in a bag. Not so friendly, and it takes a little time for the girl to warm up to this oversized creature who talks funny and isn’t really the neatest housekeeper. But the giant captures children’s dreams and distributes them to their owners. Meanwhile, his bigger brethren aren’t so welcoming to Sophie — they’d rather have her for a snack.
Nightmarish stuff, right? But that’s Dahl, who seems to pick odd ways of telling stories that show kids how to deal with life. A giant peach? A glass elevator? A candy factory? Dahl often puts his child heroes into frightening situations, only to make their triumphs that much more earned and satisfying.
Spielberg, of course, can’t resist adding a little sweetener to the mix. That’s what he does, and it shows in the third act when Sophia and the BFG meet the queen. It gets a little off-track with the fart jokes — yes, fart jokes in Buckingham Palace (the corgis, at least, are hilarious) — but the ending is happy, though, as pretty much usual in Dahl stories, a little bittersweet.
The BFG is a charming, lively film, which makes it a tragedy that audiences rejected it. Come on, people, try something different from the usual summer bombastic fare. You’ll be entertained, amused and involved.
Just beware the wine where the bubbles go down, not up.