Spielberg has lost something and I'm not quite sure what it is--energy, zest, maybe chutzpah. Whatever it is you can't help but think that's exactly what was needed for his latest, The BFG--originally a slim Roald Dahl children's book, now a tired lumbering superproduction by the once-New Hollywood's former boxoffice whiz kid.
It's a bit sad; Roald Dahl's short stories and books have this no-nonsense zip that allows you to whiz through their pages, whether written for children or adults. He should be an easy project but he's deceptively challenging--Mel Stuart who first adapted Charlie and the Chocolate Factory drenched the story in syrupy sentimentality but managed to get the pacing right; Tim Burton who did a far more faithful translation slowed the pace down a bit, the better to capture Dahl's undercurrent of horror (this after all is the story of five children walking into a candy factory and getting their just desserts--a candy-coated Dante's Inferno if you like) but stumbled when he allowed Johnny Depp to play Wonka as a more benevolent Michael Jackson (the original Wonka Gene Wilder possessed a purer more out-there kind of insanity). Wes Anderson enjoyed a small triumph when he decided to do The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the visual charm of slightly clunky handcrafted stop-motion animation able to sustain one's interest while Anderson focused on Mr. Fox's troubled relationship with his son (a development added by the director). Oddly even Nicolas Roeg, a master not so much of narrative pacing as of dreamlike imagery managed to capture Dahl's mischievous/malevolent spirit in the mostly (and unjustly) forgotten The Witches--when the little boy watches an entire conference room of women transform into hideous hags (and yes there's a misogynist charge to the image) you can't help but picture Roeg and Dahl standing side-by-side behind the camera, cackling gleefully at what they had wrought (for the record Dahl hated the film, but nobody's perfect).
So if Anderson and Roeg (of all people) can do it why not Spielberg? The picture starts off relatively well--orphaned Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is still up at 3 AM reading a book to soothe her insomnia; she gazes idly at the furniture in a dollhouse (a nice foreshadowing of how she herself will be gazed at inside her orphanage). She spots the giant (Mark Rylance) creeping about in nighttime London; he promptly snatches her from her bed and takes her with him (she's seen him, and mustn't be allowed to talk). At this point Spielberg offers up his first and most inspired bit of visual invention: the giant eludes detection by deftly melding into one shadow after another, imitating the outline of a tree, a statue, whatever's available (it's a better realized sequence than the spot-the-octopus ending credits of Finding Dory, where the cephalopod eventually resorts to cheating at the game).
It's when the giant finally arrives at his home in Giant Country that the picture starts petering out. Barnhill does well as Sophie, a not obviously attractive child who shows spirit when challenged (or kidnapped); she should be well served by Rylance, who seems intimidating when cloaked in shadows but in the candlelight of his own abode looks so obviously gentle and friendly (despite the old-geezer cantankerous mannerisms) you can't help but feel disappointed (he's a big softie after all!). It's not Rylance's fault--he was wonderful as the beleaguered espionage agent in Bridge of Spies, and his eyes had a glittering rodentlike quality to them there that promised all sorts of ambiguity--but Spielberg here is so obviously eager to make a kid-friendly film (again) he's diligently pulled all the teeth out of the source material. When the BFG and Sophie discuss the other giants' practice of cannibalism it's as if they're discussing bad manners--there's no threat to the subject.
The picture wakes up some when the BFG visits Buckingham Palace--again the contrast between large and small scale is played out, this time against the urgent need to follow royal protocol; the irreverent low slapstick that follows is perhaps the movie's most Dahl-like sequence.
Dahl's books accelerate towards their endings; Spielberg's movie can't seem to help leaking air. The sequence of the British military (skip this paragraph if you plan to watch!) attempting to capture the rest of the man-eating titans should be the climax of the picture, but it's a sleep-inducing bore, at once too busy and too emotionally distant to engage the eye. I'd like to call this the equivalent of the Hollywood Boulevard bombing sequence in 1941 (in my book Spielberg's masterpiece) which wasn't very sentimental either, but on the level of big toys barreling down the world's most elaborate model set was absolutely riveting. Spielberg's miniatures in that earlier film had solidity and texture that your eye wanted to linger over in loving detail; his digital giants and helicopters in this flick seemed weightless and insubstantial, ultimately disposable. You pick which effects-stuffed picture you prefer.
First published in Businessworld 8.12.16
First published in Businessworld 8.12.16