Thursday, July 7, 2016

Film Friday: The BFG (2016)

When Steven Spielberg announced he was turning Roald Dahl’s book The BFG into a movie, I suspect a lot of people had the same reaction I did: “huh… I never heard of it.” But kids movies are big business and Spielberg is a talented director and a lot of the people who do know this book currently have kids, so I assumed it would be huge. But it wasn’t. And I know why it wasn't.

The Plot

The BFG is a kids story from the 1980’s. It involves a giant who roams Britain at night blowing dreams into the rooms of little kids. Why he does this isn’t very clear except that he captures dreams and then seems to like dispensing them to some kids because that gives him charm.

One night, this giant is spotted by a little girl who lives in an orphanage. Her name is Sophie, and she’s an insomniac. In a panic, the giant grabs the girl and takes her with him back to giant country. He does this because he’s afraid that humans would hunt the giants if they knew that the giants existed. As an aside, the other giants are all cruel, “cannibals” (they eat humans). The BFG eats rotten vegetables.
After the kidnapping, we learn that the giant is a moron. He makes up words and gets confused – some of the words will be familiar from Willy Wonka. He also no think good, but that’s ok because he’s a comfortable cliché. He’s the simple working man/janitor who dispenses wisdom... earthy wisdom... magic negro wisdom. He also can’t get enough of telling us just how stupid his is.

Anyways, the moron and little girl go through the motions of fearing each other and then become fast friends. We also learn he calls himself The Big Friendly Giant, and likes the way some kid he previously kidnapped shortened that to the BFG. So the girl calls him that and all is well.

But there is a problem. See, even though this giant is nice and cuddly, it turns out that there are other giants who are much bigger and much nastier and they kidnap and eat children. What’s more, the other giants have come to suspect that the moron has a human stashed somewhere.
The BFG realizes that he can’t protect the girl and he decides to return her to the human world. But that won’t work so the girl comes up with a plan to solve their problem. They visit the queen of England and get her to authorize a military strike against the evil giants. She does and the day is saved.


I’m actually a little torn about this film. On the hand, this film is beautifully shot. The effects are fantastic and believable. The acting is good. The story moves along at a good pace. There is little I can fault throughout the film. It’s even quite earnest and without cynicism... something I really do appreciate. So overall, I see where this film should have been a huge success and part of me wants to tell you to go see it.

But story matters and this story just never got interesting.

At no point does this story ever reach any sort of climax, and that makes the film dull. Take the meeting with the giant. Sophie gets taken by the giant. She gets dragged to his cave. In the cave, she hides from him, but he always knows where she is... so there’s no drama. The giant says he will keep her forever. She resists at first, but she’s an orphan with nowhere to go... no drama. Then she decides she wants to stay, though the BFG has done nothing to earn it... no drama. Now the BFG wants to return her, except we already know the bad guys know about her, so he can’t leave her... no drama.
Then Sophie comes up with a plan to go to the queen and convince her to attack the other giants. Before she goes, we meet the queen and see that she’s the nicest, most caring woman on the planet and it would be impossible for her not to help anyone in need. So there is no drama when Sophie makes her sales pitch. Then the queen calls out the military. She gives a command that is so simple that the film's writing is telegraphing that the plan can’t fail. Sure enough, right before the soldiers attack, all but the worst giant get knocked out of the fight with bad dreams. That makes the fight a walkover. And almost the moment the soldiers attack, it's over. No drama.

The key to any good story is to keep the audience unsure of what will happen next. Be it the outcome of a fight or battle, the need for reconciliation between two characters, the roll of a dice or the execution of a plan, the more uncertain the audience is of the success of the character they want to win, the greater the tension and the more the audience will be interested. Yet, at every single turn, The BFG telegraphs how a particular conflict will be resolved basically at the point it is mentioned.
Ernest Hemingway was brilliant in many ways. His two most important skills were his ability to make the complex seem incredibly simple (something imitators don’t understand) and the way he could take a simple point of conflict in a story and torture you by stretching it out. For Whom The Bell Tolls, for example, starts with a man who is about to explode a bridge. It seems like the bridge is going to explode in the next sentence. But it doesn’t. Instead, Hemingway spirals away to tell his story, always using the about-to-be-exploded bridge as a way to tell his story and ratcheting up the tension the whole time. Spielberg in BFG completely misses that. There is nothing that isn't resolved the moment it first gets mentioned and Spielberg spends the film defusing such tension before he even tells you there is tension.

This is why the film comes across as so utterly dull. Imagine being shown a football game, but first being handed a list containing the details of every score. How exciting would that game be? It’s the same thing here.

It’s sad. This was a film with tremendous potential. All the pieces were there, and Spielberg knows how to tell a story. This time, however, he failed... and the blame really does lie with him.


Jason said...

I think this movie just came out years too late. It used to be that Spielberg-directed (or with just the Amblin logo) family films were major event films. But Spielberg pretty much quit making them in the mid-90s to focus on Dreamworks and his more "prestige" films (Amistad, Private Ryan, Lincoln). Now he's back in the saddle, but he ran into the Finding Dory buzzsaw and then got finished off with Secret Life of Pets. Basically, he was the "old and busted" getting run over by the Pixar/Illumination "new hotness."

Personally, I think this movie should have been released in the fall or winter. It felt more like a fall movie anyway. Why Disney (which owns Pixar) didn't think that premiering BFG so close to Dory might not be a problem baffles me.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, That's true. Talk about bad timing!!

I agree. I think that Spielberg would have caught this flaw a decade ago... or he didn't care.

ArgentGale said...

I've never heard of the book myself... When I hear BFG I think of the ultimate demon blaster in the Doom games, actually, which doesn't stand for Big Friendly Giant! Sad to hear about the wasted potential, though, though in a way it's understandable. I have to fight that particular storytelling urge myself when I write. Still, it's always good to have an example of why it's a bad idea!

- Daniel

AndrewPrice said...

Daniel, It definitely had potential. It just didn't live up to it.

ScottDS said...

Sorry I'm late!

I'm not saying this is relevant, but one movie website posted a chart to illustrate that, with the exception of Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, no Roald Dahl adaptation has been anywhere close to a hit and only later have audiences come to appreciate movies like the original Willy Wonka and The Witches.

But in this case, it would appear that there were other issues. (An over-crowded summer and the Pixar machine didn't help!)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Honestly, I don't think Roald Dahl is a very good writer. I'm not surprised. And this isn't the greatest story, not by a long shot. Then the film made it worse.

Simon Fallaha said...

Hi Andrew!

Long time reader, first time commenter. It began with your excellent dissection of Minority Report, a film I loved for years thanks to its performances, visual storytelling and memorable moments, but doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Anyway, "I don't think Roald Dahl is a very good writer"? Ouch. I'm a writer myself, and every single one of his books has been a major inspiration to me. I'd be interested in knowing why you believe this to be so.

AndrewPrice said...

Hi Simon! Thanks for commenting!

Whoops! Sorry, I misspoke. I meant to say that the films that have been made from his books strike me as rarely being very good, with the 1971 Willy Wonka being an exception. My brain must have short-circuited the thought. I really have enjoyed the books of his that I've read. I see them as clever, subversive, and yet packed with ideas that capture the imagination.

The films, on the other hand, usually feel rather bland and generic to me.

Sorry for the mistake.

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