July 15 2016 02:26 PM

Stephen Spielberg sneaks daring, darkness and originality into “The BFG”

I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about “The BFG.” It’s not faithful to Roald Dahl’s original novel. It removes too many of the darker, more ironic elements. It’s too light, too sweet, not nearly cohesive enough. The visual effects and animation look obviously fake. Worst of all, The BFG is being dismissed as “minor Spielberg.” I agree that a bit more of a cohesive structure would have made the film more classically entertaining, but, for once, being classically entertaining may not have been director Steven Spielberg’s goal, or, at least, not his only goal, since, narratively and thematically, this may be Spielberg’s most experimental film to date.

Late one night, Sophie (an adorable Ruby Barnhill) spots a giant, the BFG (Mark Rylance, in his second great collaboration with Spielberg in less than a year), through the window of the orphanage where she lives. Skulking through the streets of London, the BFG spots Sophie spotting her. To make sure she doesn’t alert anyone of his presence, he kidnaps her and brings her to Giant Country. From there, the two must devise a plan to deal with the other giants who harass and bully the BFG (whom they call “Runt”). The giant bullies also enter the human world in order to kidnap and eat human children — and people are complaining that this movie isn’t dark enough. Sophie and the BFG end up visiting the Queen of England and asking for military assistance, in an enjoyable, but oddly paced and structured sequence.

This type of narrative is almost unprecedented for Spielberg. His only other foray into the fantasy genre was 1991’s “Hook,” which has a somewhat similar premise of a fatherly fantasy character whisking a child or children off to a magical realm. However, most people, Spielberg included, would care to forget about “Hook.”

Any talk of plot and narrative in “The BFG” is a bit beside the point, since there really isn’t any of either. The brief synopsis above could almost serve as the film’s story treatment. This is partly to the film’s detriment, since Spielberg is at his best, or at least his most entertaining, when he’s dealing with very plot driven material. But the thin plot is also what makes the film so interesting and easy to respect. It shows the master filmmaker abandoning his typical safety net and crafting a movie more dependent on character, image, sound and theme.

And the themes are compelling. Besides some obvious kid-friendly messages about standing up to bullies and appreciating curiosity, kindness, and intelligence over strength, there’s also an interesting exploration of what it means to be an artist. Spielberg turns his lens around to reveal his own feelings on his craft and how he sees himself. Spielberg’s films are also often called “dad movies” for their portraits of fatherhood, whether literal or metaphorical. (Compared to his friend Martin Scorsese, the great scrutinizer of destructive, patriarchal masculinity, Spielberg is the great valorizer of protective, constructive, paternal masculinity.) The BFG himself serves this fatherly function, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the director embrace the maternal in this film, depicting femininity as an equally constructive force for social and personal good, through Sophie, the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and Mary, the Queen’s maid (Rebecca Hall).

Of course, the film is rather idealistic and sentimental, but Speilberg’s sweetness is genuine, not saccharine. It comes from an honest moral viewpoint, not from a cloying, insecure desire to please his audience and make a profit, like imitators such as Zemeckis and Abrams. In fact, while watching “The BFG,” I couldn’t help recalling J.J. Abrams’ quote about his thought process in crafting “Star Wars: The Force Awakens:” “That was the only requirement… The movie needed to be delightful.” I kept thinking of this because I find it ironic how infrequently Abrams succeeded with this in his film and how easily his idol Spielberg (who Abrams is clearly riffing on order to go for that “delightful” vibe) succeeds in delighting his audiences, film after film, almost intuitively. This isn’t exactly Spielberg’s most technically sophisticated film — he gets far too enamored by the animation and showing off his world — but there is a pure joy to his filmmaking here. He gets enthusiastic performances from his actors, and while the animation is far from realistic, it’s beautiful and a joy to look at. The CGI doesn’t mesh very well with the live action elements, but it’s never distracting and the incongruities add to the film’s charm, oddly enough.

So, no, Spielberg has not made a faithful adaptation of a beloved children’s novel. He’s made his own film, fueled by his own sensibilities and imagination, which we are lucky to have in the American cinematic landscape. It is a bit too sweet, but if more actual human beings — or “beans” as the giants endearingly call them — had a temperament more like this film’s, then the world probably be a much better place. And, finally: minor Spielberg? Fine, it’s not his best. But don’t call it minor, because, in relation to the rest of his filmography, it might be one of the director’s most daring and original films.

Grade: B+