Steven Spielberg’s films are at their most intriguing when they’re at their weirdest. It’s safe to say, then, that his unexpected dalliance with Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” makes his newest film one of the weirdest to date. When faced with a 3D family-friendly blockbuster loaded with an uneasy combination of British drollness, Spielberg sentimentality and fart jokes, there’s good reason to be incredibly skeptical. It may seem that Spielberg lightness and Dahl darkness (two brutally stereotypical yet popular reductions of complex artists) wouldn’t go well together. But rest assured: Spielberg proves he’s up to the daunting task of adapting Dahl, meeting everyone’s fair-minded expectations with a joyful irreverence.
“The BFG” is all about being humbled by how small you really are. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a sweet orphan girl who’s whisked away one rainy night by the self-styled Big Friendly Giant (is…is that Oscar-winning Mark Rylance from “Bridge of Spies”?). The BFG is a lanky, jovial vegan-chap who is a “dream-catcher” — that is, he bottles up “good dreams” and blows them into kids’ bedrooms at night. His favorite hobbies include eating “snozzcumbers” (a putridly green “vegi-terrible”), drinking “frobscottle” (a fizzy drink that induces gaseous “whizzpops” — you’ll find out what that means) and jazzily butchering the English language with the greatest made-up words since Carroll and Doc Seuss. He makes fast friends with the meek, but not weak, Sophie, who volunteers her services to help the BFG battle a nasty horde of hungry, human-“bean”-eating giants. Her solution is a positively loony one, involving the bottled dreams, the Queen of England and the massive invasion of Giant Country. But it takes a little person to dream big. (Cue angelic choirs.)
It’s always fun to figure out who’s the bigger voice in a Spielberg collaboration. No one could agree whether Kubrick or Spielberg was the better auteur of “A.I.” (answer: it was both). Likewise, on “The Color Purple,” everyone inaccurately assumed Spielberg’s penchant for big-heartedness bogged down the Alice Walker novel. In a similar manner, one could safely expect the wildly different personas of Spielberg and Dahl to clash instead of mesh. Dahl is popularly perceived as a grizzled, sardonic master of dark humor; Spielberg, meanwhile, is often seen as some painfully sentimental, trite, yet committed humanist. These two stereotypical portraits of two great artists reduces their work to an easily digestible sound bite. They instill a false expectation in an audience, who are taught to blame Hollywood roteness on Spielbergian softness.
But the truth is far more complicated than it would seem. Spielberg can be just as cutting and ruthless as Dahl, and Dahl can always find room to sweeten his Billy Wilder-like cynicism and acidity. Taken together, these two sweet-and-sour elements bring out Spielberg’s patented humanism in its purest, most un-sticky form. As the rather tepid “Bridge of Spies” recently showed, Spielberg’s humanism nowadays is best channeled in the service of blatant fantasia. His most interesting films have an idiosyncratic, rough edge to them, a quality best brought out by outrageously conceived fantasy scenes (“A.I.”), kid-friendly sweetness (“E.T.”) and pure exercises in genre (the horror “Jaws” and “Duel,” the “Indy Jones” adventure serials). These frivolous flights of fancy ensure Spielberg starts as low as he can go. Then, from this trench-deep place of lowly repute, he’s able to slowly make his points and simultaneously win a skeptical audience’s aesthetic trust with his trademark humanism, honesty and technical knowhow. There are some exceptions, as usual; “The Color Purple” — one of the most emotionally affecting adaptations I’ve ever seen — was jaw-dropping in book and film form. But on the whole, the lowly, weird, enchanting Spielbergs are much more interesting than his more easily digestible, palatable, Big Statement pictures (“Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies,” to name a few). While “The BFG” doesn’t quite enter the hallowed pantheon of greats (along with “A.I.,” “Jaws,” and “E.T.”), it does dance near the edge of the Far Side of Paradise.
Not everything is avant-garde in Spielberg-Dahl land, of course. The looming ears of the Mouse (Disney) bring out the worst qualities of Spielberg: a cloying sentimentality that is certainly genuine to him but rings false (at best) and seems deluded (at worst) to us. Blame Disney for the moments where Spielberg indulges himself in lukewarm-champagne scenes of maudlin togetherness; they briefly sparkle with bubbly freshness before going forever flat. These problem scenes lie mainly in the middle: Sophie and the BFG talking all googly and goopily about their dreams, the BFG frolicking happily in the fields and Sophie (separated from Giant Land) pouting with gloom and doom. In these (mostly contained) moments, you understand what the critics say when they (inaccurately) declare “The BFG” to be “Roald Dahl kitschified.” That’s only part of the rather complex reality.
Really, though, the best parts of “The BFG” can go toe-to-toe with the kooky soul and manic wit of Dahl’s children’s books. Ruby Barnhill is an astonishingly mature summation of all the great Dahl heroines; as Sophie, she is a snappy, smart young girl with a “Matilda”-like bookishness balanced out by a firebrand passion in every word she spits out. Mark Rylance’s Gobblefunk speech (Dahl’s own linguistic invention — a sort of Seuss-ified Nadsat for kids) pays tribute to Dahl’s playful love of language. And a wonderful interlude at a Buckingham Palace, involving the Queen sending the British Army to invade Giant Land and restore “British order,” delights with its ludicrous, satirical zaniness.
One thing of special note: the 3D. I never bother to spend the extra money to see a film in 3D, but I’d make a huge exception for Spielberg’s “BFG.” Every detail — from the wetness of a cobblestone street to the putrid liquidity of one of Dahl’s snozzcumbers — is given a visual oomph by the 3D bulge. Typically, a modern film’s use of 3D is marred by the 3D’s sensory overkill. The CG usually sports the attitude of a Barnum and Bailey gimmick, is only deployed to have things fly at the audience and looks expensively ugly. “The BFG” rejects all these possible pathways to 3Disaster. We’re genuinely thrilled when 3D puts us in Sophie’s eyes, riding inside the BFG’s pouch and gleaning his man cave with a freshness of wonder. The 3D adds so much sparkle to the hyperreality of the image that it would make critic Andre Bazin (who hungered for the meatiness of a deep-dish long take with multiple planes of action) and director William Wyler (“The Heiress,” “Best Years of Our Lives”) nod their heads in approving awe.
Say what you will about Spielberg’s sentimentality, but the man can stage any scene with an awe-inspiring command of space. He knows how to manipulate the illusion of deep cinematic space in order to crawl into the mind of any given character. We see Spielberg’s cunning manipulations in the shallow, splintered, paranoid space separating Roy Scheider from a potential shark victim in “Jaws” (1975). We see it in the grungy, shell-shocked space that jitters around Tom Hanks landing on Normandy in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). And we see it duplicated in every tactile, elegantly disgusting trip through the rotted inside of a Snozzcumber, or dollhouse artificiality of an outsized Buckingham Palace. Spielberg’s goal is always to nest in a person’s private mind-chambers for a few holy hours; no matter how effective the final films are, this one goal is enough to guarantee him a spot among the best modern classicists.
Above all, “The BFG” cares about its phantasmagorical world with a depth of feeling present in all the best Spielbergs. The violence and thrills of “BFG” are quite muted and trivial; the Giants — big fluff-balls of slobbering oafishness — are never really a threat to Sophie and the BFG, who we know will win in the end. “BFG” isn’t a story of surprises; it’s one of sacred returns to forgotten places. Like the best “children’s” yarns of recent memory (“Inside Out,” “Ponyo”), “The BFG” leaves the viewer with an overpowering feeling of wistful melancholia. In the erratic process of translating Dahl to the silver screen, Spielberg transports the open-minded viewer back to that most holy of lost places: childhood.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.