Monday, February 20, 2017

Treat or Tripe? | The BFG

Having grown up with the rather dark TV cartoon version (circa 1989) of Roald Dahl’s otherwise delightful story, I had my reservations about viewing Disney’s 21st century update. Reading the reviews gave me the impression it was pretty much a straight remake of the cartoon—with a few tweaks, of course—and since anything intense or frightening in a cartoon is usually ten times scarier in live-action and/or CGI…well, I wasn’t sure a trip to Giant Country was the best idea. However, as with several other new movies in recent years, my curiosity overcame my suspicions, and I put it in the NetFlix queue. We watched it last Saturday.

And while it will probably never be on my Top Ten Favorite Movies list…I’m glad we gave it a chance.

I’ll not delve into specific content and plot here—there are a couple Christian review sites that do a fairly good job of that. This post is simply my impressions of the movie, thoughts it provoked during and after viewing, and how it compares with the cartoon. I can’t say how it holds up to the book, because I’ve never read it (yet ;-)). In fact, I didn’t even know it was a book until almost half my life ago—long after I’d outgrown the cartoon. Story of my life…but I digress.

The live-action movie is definitely not a straight remake of the cartoon. In fact, it’s almost completely different, apart from the basic plot and several key scenes (which in themselves are portrayed differently). This is not necessarily a bad thing. As I mentioned before, the cartoon, for all its fun, lighthearted portrayals of BFG and Sophy’s friendship—and even a few goofy moments—does contain some pretty intense scenes for a kids’ movie. It’s never gory or particularly violent, but although Bro and I were pretty young when we first saw it, and neither of us had any ill effects…well, I wouldn’t recommend it for “chiddlers” under ten. Happily, this version isn’t quite as intense—although a couple scenes might be frightening for the under-eight crowd, especially in the theater in 3-D.
In fact, it almost feels tame by comparison (the climax especially).

The tone is, overall, more serious—even somber—than the cartoon, especially considering Sophy isn’t the first “Bean” BFG has brought back to his cave. It’s implied, although never actually stated (or shown), that one of the other giants eventually found out about BFG’s first little friend…and ate him. It adds another element of danger to the plot, and an extra layer of sadness to BFG’s character. It also explains why he’s so protective of Sophy…and why he eventually finds the courage to stand up to the other giants and help Sophy form a plan to end to their crimes against humanity.

I always loved the cartoon’s BFG for his cheerfulness and humor, and probably always will. This BFG, by contrast, struck me as being a bit grumpier, at least at first. As the story progresses, one gets the impression that BFG’s long years—and he admits to being “as old as the earth”—have made him tired and…well, I wouldn’t call him cynical, but he is definitely more subdued. He’s weary and heartsick at the “murderful” doings of his fellow giants, but too afraid to stand up to them. He feels he is too weak and too small to make them listen to him—he is, after all, the “runt.”
This BFG is older, wiser, and more of a thinker. This BFG is lonely, but shuns the company of the other giants because of their differences…and the fact that they bully and taunt and take advantage of him doesn’t help. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, but is too afraid to confront the wrong head-on (at first, anyway). He sees the faults of others around him and tries to compensate in his own way. He’s different from his peers—both in size and appearance, and in personality and conduct. He is creative and tries to make life beautiful; the other giants only know how to take what they want and destroy things. BFG lives in an improvised cottage or furnished cave; the other giants sleep out-of-doors. BFG collects firefly-like Dreams and gives them away like presents—blowing them into sleeping people’s rooms at night. Dreams that sometimes reflect the secret longings of the recipients’ hearts, which BFG can hear. And he’d rather eat disgusting, slimy Snozcumbers than stoop to his peer’s level of hunting and gobbling up humans. Even though he can’t stand Snozcumbers.
I saw a lot of myself in this BFG.

I must confess to being a bit shocked when, upon reading the reviews, I discovered that the effects of drinking Frobscottle—which BFG describes as a “whiz-popper”—is not, in fact, a burp. As a kid, I always assumed the downward-fizzing bubbles in BFG’s favorite brew came up once inside the drinker…or that it simply filled you with gas and lifted you into the air, rather like Willy Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting Drink.
*Sigh* The innocence of youth….
The cartoon just showed BFG, Sophy, and a kind of mouse-like creature rising into the air and zipping about randomly (accompanied by a catchy song that’s now running through my head…). The live-action version adds explosive clouds of green gas—and sometimes rude noises—to the “whiz-popping” experience. Which I felt to be a bit over the top, but then, I’ve never had any great love for body-function “humor.”
However, this is really a small part of the movie and doesn’t detract much from the main plot.

It’s hard to place the genera of this movie. Teens and older kids will probably find it slow and hard to follow, yet it doesn’t really offer adults much, either. As Bro put it, the moviemakers “focused more on abstract themes,” cutting out A LOT of the material we remembered from the cartoon, and leaving the movie feeling rather hollow.
Some of the tenderest and most important scenes in BFG and Sophy’s character development happen in the oddest places in the timeline, or with strange choreography—if you will—that doesn’t seem to fit the dialogue. Probably the biggest head-scratcher is their discussion of “Sophy’s Dream,” a special kind of Dream she caught in Dream Country…a discussion that takes place on a hillside overlooking the sleeping giants…while their plan to capture them is in motion. It just seemed out of place and impractical to be discussing Sophy’s heart’s desire in plain sight of nine other giants who would happily eat her for lunch if they saw her.

I’m not going to be mean and call this movie a load of tripe. This is actually one of the cleaner movies I’ve seen in a while (and considering some of Stephen Spielberg’s other movies—featuring rather cruder humor—that’s pretty good). And it was a bit of a “treat” to find it so much less frightening than parts of the cartoon.
However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s better than the cartoon. It is, and it isn’t. The darker elements are toned down, what violence/intense content is there is more cartoonish and comedic. The cinematography is amazing. BFG—and indeed, much of the world around him—is so realistically rendered that I actually forgot for a while that he is really computer-generated. The addition of BFG’s mad camouflage skillz during Sophy’s abduction was a hoot. The Snozcumber was appropriately slimy and unappetizing (in the cartoon, it was red-and-black striped outside and deep seafoam-green inside, and didn’t really look that “slimy and sickable”). BFG himself looked almost as if he’d stepped right out of the cartoon—from his mysterious black cloak to his wide, pointed ears, down to the style of his sandals—and gotten a more realistic makeover.  I especially liked how they designed his Dream-blowing trumpet, and the various mechanical devices in his cave—many of which were made from Human artifacts, as were many other things in Giant Country.
The music (composed by none other than John Williams) is delightful—it’s one of those soundtracks that, on the whole, fits the action so subtly and so well that you don’t really notice it, yet it undergirds the story. The one exception is the scene where the evil giants are rummaging about BFG’s Dream-cave while hunting for Sophy. The background music has a more comical feel to it—what I’ve dubbed “bumbling idiot music”—which helps diffuse an otherwise tense sequence rather nicely.

But the more abstract feel and odd script and directing choices leave it lacking the depth, both in plot and worldbuilding, that the cartoon had. The live-action is a bit more kid-friendly overall, but the cartoon tells a lot more of the story, and in a more interesting way. As Elizabeth Bennett would say, there is just enough between them to make one good sort of movie.

On the whole, we all enjoyed it pretty well (Mom’s biggest beef was that they made BFG so much smaller than the other giants!), and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again every so often.

But now I want to read the book and find out what really happened….

Until next time, Gentle Readers,
God bless,

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