Friday, July 1, 2016
The second half of 2016 kicks off with a giant thud:
If the prospect of two hours spent listening to a computer-generated special effect and a precocious orphan girl say things like, "Bottlesnipes! It's a fuzz-wumper!" sounds like your idea of a good time, then Steven Spielberg's "The BFG" is made for you (and perhaps just for you; at the Landmark last night, they'd hopefully placed it in the big house, which might have been 1% full). As for me, I fucking loathe that shit. Snozz-cumbers. Croco-diddlies. Hippo-dumplings. It's Roald Dahl by way of some hideous amalgam of Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll and Ned Flanders.
The aforementioned orphan, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill in an effortful performance), is an insomniac who reads voraciously and, when she hears noises in the night, reminds herself never to look behind the window curtains. Except the one night when she does, and spies a ginormous arm replacing a trash bin its owner had inadvertently upended. That owner turns out to be the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), who takes Sophie in hand and runs from London north (way, way north) to Giant Country. If forced, I could cobble together five (non-continuous) minutes of this film I enjoyed, but none more so than the clever ways in which The BFG hides in plain sight whenever a human is about to spot him on this run.
After dispelling Sophie's preconception that as a giant, he must eat humans (can a movie be made in 2016 without reference to prejudice against some group?), he admits that his nine even more giant brothers (who call him "Runt") do in fact eat people - children, specifically - and she should make herself scarce whenever they barge into his place. What goes on there has something to do with "catching dreams," which ill-advisedly are represented by amorphous blobs of multicolored gas in the jars that line BFG's laboratory shelves. The imprecision of this concept is one of several instances of material that might have worked on the page but loses any potency when depicted literally on the screen. For all the money that went into "The BFG's" CGI, I don't think the effects will hold up well.
You may also notice, as the generic John Williams score pounds away during even the picture's idlest moments, that the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison added little in the way of a plot - the most important feature of any entertainment for children (the magic of her "E.T." or the best Disney animations is a natural by-product of their great stories). Spielberg seeks to rectify that lacuna in the last half-hour, with a vaguely amusing if tonally dissonant set piece in which Sophie and the BFG inject the Queen (Penelope Wilton) with a dream that awakens her to the child-menacing practices of the bad giants (who are portrayed as such dumb lugs that there's not even a good scare - which would have enriched the experience - to be had).
"The BFG" is vague, not fully formed. I don't think I could expound on its themes or its message if it meant getting into heaven. I do know that its primary source of humor, flatulence, is, to borrow a line from Joan Rivers in "A Piece of Work," not my comedy. (Somehow the movie that kept coming to mind was "My Stepmother is an Alien.") I think children will find all the Gobblefunk charmless and off-putting even if they don't share my visceral antipathy. The storytelling inertia - one critic rightly called it a "hangout movie," where we're supposed to delight in the company of the characters even though not much happens - will make the runtime feel even longer than it is. I'm not in the prediction business, but I think audiences will respond to "The BFG" as Buck and Gia to a Milk-Bone: a quick sniff, then Pass-a-dena.