Sunday, July 3, 2016


Yesterday, in violation of my contract with myself to hold out for the new Star Trek movie and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I took myself out to dinner and a movie for the second time in two weeks. What can I say? It was Saturday of a long holiday weekend, and a gloomy, damp day. I was lonely and depressed, and I didn't think I was going to have the energy to do much reading, so I took a drive around the Lake of the Ozarks, then stopped part of the way home for a bite of pizza and a movie.

It turned out the big-screen choices for the holiday weekend, besides Independence Day 2 (which I had already seen) and a couple things that held no interest at all, were the new Tarzan and Steven Spielberg's The BFG, based on a beloved children's book by Roald Dahl. I decided to go with the Rotten Tomatoes score on this decision. The one movie featured a hulked-out Alexander Skarsgaard and a mustachioed Samuel L. Jackson, yet its critical and audience feedback weighed in at the 30th percentile; meanwhile, the children's flick starring a digitally altered Mark Rylance, who lately won an Oscar for another Spielberg role, scored in the 70s. Also, I tend to like Dahl-based stuff. So I went BFG - "big friendly giant."

Rylance plays the shortest giant in Giant Country, who lives on a diet of snozzcumbers (trust me, don't ask) because the alternative is to be a people-eating monster, like his nine brutish and much bigger cousins. He visits English cities at night, not to guzzle human "beans," but to blow dreams through their windows - dreams he collects in a magical place that is better seen than described. But an insomniac orphan named Sophie sees him, and he decides he has to scrobble her to make sure she doesn't tell on him. The trouble becomes that the other giants - named Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecruncher, Gizzardgulper, Manhugger, Childchewer, Meatdripper, Maidmasher, and Butcher Boy; each name as classically Dahl as the word "scrumdiddlyumptious" - have an excellent nose for beans, and an insatiable hunger with it. Eventually they realize the only way to ensure Sophie's safety, and prevent the giants from snatching humans off the streets, is to visit the queen. But it takes a bit of dream-magic to persuade her to send the army to sort out the giants.

Ruby Barnhill, 12, plays Sophie, perhaps the first child character in a Spielberg movie who doesn't make you want to reach into the screen and shake her - in spite of being an admitted liar, thief, and frequent runaway from the orphanage where, strangely, none of the other orphans (or even the allegedly incompetent matron) is ever seen interacting with her. All the other kids are asleep every time you see them. The only other young character who gets any attention is the boy seen getting a happy dream from the BFG, a scene that for some reason I can't explain, left me with tears on my cheeks. There's also a scene in which Sophie looks around the BFG's shrine to a boy he previously took under his wing, back in Victorian times, but whose end at the hands of the giant left a deep sadness in the kindly giant's heart.

Other than the action, mainly involving horseplay with the other giants, and the magical business of the dreams, the main highlight of the movie is the hilarious sequence in which Queen Elizabeth II serves breakfast to the BFG, culminating in a case of royal flatulence brought on by the giant's snozzcumber-based home brew. Playing the queen is Penelope Wilton, whom I remember as "that woman from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel who reminded me of Eric Idle in drag." Other cast members include Jemaine Clement (half of "Flight of the Conchords"), Rebecca Hall (the brunette in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Rafe Spall (the writer in Life of Pi - plus, I just found out he's going to be in a film of Swallows and Amazons!), Bill Hader ("Saturday Night Live," and lots of voice roles), Adam Godley (whom I remember as Mr. Teavee in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), and Matt Frewer ("Max Headroom") in a brief role as one of the Queen's generals.

While I don't think this movie is going to break into the same high echelon of pop-culture phenomena as Dahl book-films Matilda and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (this time I mean the one with Gene Wilder), movies that will be cited by memory by an entire generation for decades afterward - I think it was a beautifully made movie, full of quiet charm and fizzing with fun. Rylance gets a character with a unique way of talking, who quickly becomes convincingly real in spite of his oddness, and who steals viewers' hearts with his gentle sadness, his loneliness and vulnerability, and his ability to take joy from simple things.

Of course, on a sad and lonely day, I would go to see a movie about a sad and lonely giant. But it didn't leave me feeling down. It didn't pick me up, either. But it added warmth to a drizzly, gloomy Saturday afternoon. And that Spielberg would bother making a movie that does only that - with a quirky touch of humor, magic, and excitement - shows that he may have hit a new level of maturity. How odd that it takes a children's film to show it!

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