Thursday, 12 January 2017

On DVD: "The BFG"

Some films you emerge from wondering why it is Hollywood, with all the resources at its disposal, can no longer tell us a good bedtime story; emerging from The BFG, you start wondering what the collective noun is for such an illustrious confluence of yarnspinners. (A loom, maybe?) This is, of course, Roald Dahl, as brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg, working from a script that was the last completed by the late Melissa Mathison (E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial). At its best, the completed film offers the astonishing possibility that Spielberg might still, at the grand old age of 70, be learning on the job: for one thing, he's figured out how to handle beloved formative material with far more love and care than was bestowed upon 2011's weightless, therefore throwaway mo-cap Tintin adaptation. 

There are early collywobbles, certainly: the prologue, set in a hodgepodge CG London, suggests we're in for more by-the-digital-yard fantasy, indistinguishable from the last half-dozen Tim Burton movies; these scenes are neither Dahlish nor Spielbergian enough. Yet the film assumes a greater reality - or, rather, its fantasy becomes more assured and consistent - once the titular giant scoops up young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, sparky) and carries her away to Giant Country. Here, Spielberg allows his audience to marvel at the landscape - the now-standard mix of pixels and top-notch production design - rather than just whizzing us mindlessly through it, as he did in the Tintin film. He has one magnificent fixed point in the BFG himself, conceived - and here the credit must be split equally between Dahl, Spielberg, Mathison and Mark Rylance, the performer wired up for the occasion - as an eccentric bachelor, ostracised by the grunting alphas of his tribe for his flowery speaking patterns and committed vegetarianism. (In his own words, he "don't eat human beans".) 

What Mathison has preserved, beneath the digital bells and whistles, is the bond between a girl who needs protection and an old codger who plainly needs the company - an emotional throughline that also leads us to reflect on Spielberg's own trajectory from wide-eyed movie brat to latter-day greybeard, the Mr. Reliable we turn to for comfort and reassurance in a world that elsewhere seems to change by the day. If The BFG has anything in common with the director's previous film Bridge of Spies beyond the presence of Rylance in some form, it's the delight both movies take in companionship - in having another person around to talk to, share one's fragile hopes and dreams with, perhaps even chuckle when someone lets rip with a whizzpopping fart. Spielberg has never been fashionable, but over the past three decades, no-one has come close to surpassing him as American cinema's foremost humanist.

I think we might nevertheless note that something has changed in the transition from E.T.'s rubber suit to the BFG's digital carapace, and not necessarily for the better. Commercial pressures have meant directors of family films in the VFX era have increasingly had to start thinking of their projects in terms of eye-catching, trailer-ready setpieces rather than the nuts-and-bolts business of plot progression or character beats, and even the Mathison-Spielberg powerhouse has had to concede this: The BFG can't go ten minutes without some 3D-justifying hurlyburly that overturns all the matter in any given location and distracts the viewer, without appearing to alter the film's dramatic stakes one jot. (Of all last year's major studio releases aimed at pre-teens, only the fully animated Kubo and the Two Strings pushed against this trend and placed its faith in the audience having some residual attention span - and yet that film struggled to claw back its budget.)

Yet whenever it slows down and falls into Dahl's own rhythms - explaining, for example, just how the giant goes about collecting and creating dreams (metaphor for writing/filmmaking/any creative process ahoy!), or having him sit down for a slap-up meal at Buckingham Palace with Eileen Atkins' Queen (punchline: turbo-trumping Corgis), or simply opening up this old man's big flappy ears to the heartfelt words of a vulnerable young girl - the film is genuinely, sincerely charming, the version of The BFG you may at some point have hoped that Steven Spielberg would get round to making. The book is better, and will cast a longer lasting spell on any youngsters you may have to hand - but we could probably have taken that as read; while no immediate classic, the film's really not bad.

The BFG is now available on DVD through Entertainment One.   

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