The BFG (2016)


This is giant country.

This is giant country.

(2016) Family (Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Adam Godley, Michael David Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moritz de Sa, Marilyn Norry, Callum Seagram Airlie, Haig Sutherland, Shauna Hansen, Denise Jones, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

What dreams may come are the ones that spark our imaginations and inspire our journeys. No matter how small and insignificant we are, our dreams make giants of us all.

Sophie (Barnhill) is a level-headed young girl living in a London orphanage. Her life is a dull routine of rules (that she routinely breaks) and drudgery. Her only joy comes after everyone is in bed asleep. She then finds books to read, that transport her out of her dreary surroundings to places of luxury, adventure and excitement.

One night, she spies a giant man (Rylance) striding through London. Unfortunately, he spots her and so he plucks her out of her bed and carries her home with him to Giant Country. There, Sophie discovers that her Giant is a gentle one, so she names him (since he has no name) BFG, standing for Big Friendly Giant. She also discovers that there are nine other much larger giants who bully BFG and who are not so nice; they eat human flesh (BFG turns out to be a vegetarian) and are always hungry. They also have figured out how to travel to our world, where they pluck little children away from their homes and eat them. They’re led by the water-phobic Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and include such worthies as Bloodbottler (Hader) and Maidmasher (Olafsson).

The BFG also has an important function; every night while the Giants sleep, he strides over to Dream Country where on a gigantic tree dreams are formed. He captures the dreams (which flit around like multi-colored fireflies) and stores them, eventually making his nightly rounds in London to give people the dreams he’s caught. It’s a very taxing job but one that the BFG seems well-suited for.

Despite being 24 feet tall, the BFG is actually a runt as far as the other giants are concerned (they are at least double his height) and he is bullied endlessly, used as a bowling ball. Sophie knows that the bad giants must be stopped and the only one who can do it is the Queen of England (Wilton) which shows that Sophie can use a lot of work in her civics lessons.

Spielberg alone other than maybe Walt Disney understands how to tap in to the wonder and magic that children see the world as. His movies are classics that understand how to access the child in all of us; what made E.T. such an indelible classic is that he first of all doesn’t talk down to children, nor does he surround the kids in his movies with incompetent, bumbling adults. In fact, he gives credit to kids much more than a lot of the family film makers of the 21st century do.

Some were hoping that this would be a return to E.T. inasmuch as he was using the Amblin Entertainment team that was largely responsible for the iconic 1982 hit. The mood is a bit darker here, although Spielberg remains a master of evoking wonder – the dream tree sequence is vintage Spielberg. However, this isn’t to the level of some of his more beloved work.

Part of why that is may have to do with the difference in my age in Spielberg’s golden years and now. Perhaps I’m just being more of a curmudgeon, but I found myself getting annoyed with the BFG’s constant malapropisms and bizarre words (“figglers” instead of fingers, “strawbucklers” instead of strawberries) that make him sound like he has some sort of severe mental illness.

Barnhill’s character also rubs me the wrong way. She’s been getting much critical praise for her performance, but quite frankly I just felt…annoyed by her. It’s not that she’s doing anything particularly wrong as an actress and the character is, I suppose, well within the parameters that we should expect our plucky British heroines to be. She just felt condescending and sort of twee. I just felt like I’d just had a thousand Pixie Stix poured down my throat at once whenever she was onscreen.

Don’t get me wrong; there is every reason to go see this movie this summer and to take the family with you. Flawed or not, this is still Steven Spielberg and he knows how to make an entertaining movie that inspires amazement. This isn’t his best work, but his less-than-stellar efforts blow nearly everybody out of the water. There is also the possibility that I simply have outgrown him and that might be the most horrible contemplation of all.

REASONS TO GO: It does have plenty of charm and imagination.
REASONS TO STAY: The giant-speak gets incredibly annoying as does Barnhill’s plucky kid performance.
FAMILY VALUES: The very young may find this a bit frightening; otherwise there’s just some mildly rude humor to contend with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last produced screenplay by Melissa Matheson prior to her passing away in late 2015. The film is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Happening

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Fantastic Mr. Fox


Fantastic Mr. Fox

A Fox family portrait.

(Fox Searchlight) Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Michael Gambon, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, Brian Cox. Directed by Wes Anderson

One thing is true of all of God’s critters, two-legged and four-legged alike and that is that we must all be true to our own natures. If that nature invites danger and disaster, can we but follow the path presented to us or can we diverge into safety and security?

Mr. Fox (Clooney) is a chicken thief, and like all successful thieves he survives by being quick-witted and adaptive. His wife Mrs. Fox (Streep) doesn’t really approve of his line of work, but when they nearly get caught she forces a promise from him that he will find a different career path. He chooses the one that may be of all jobs even less reputable than chicken thievery – journalism.

Years have gone by and Mr. Fox continues to live in poverty in a comfortable hole with his family. He has gone straight but only on the surface; in his heart he is a clever chicken thief liberating poultry from farmers who are unwise enough to allow them to be liberated. Despite his lack of financial wherewithal Mr. Fox decides to buy a home above ground in a beautiful tree overlooking the farms of the three men who control the valley they live in (and three of the meanest men you’ll ever meet). While Mr. Fox’s lawyer Badger (Murray) cautions against it, Mr. Fox goes through with his plan to buy the house anyway even though it will put his family in the line of fire. That family is going through enough as it is with the arrival of cousin Kristofferson (Anderson) which further antagonizes Mr. Fox’s teenage son Ash (Schwartzmann) who has a bit of an inferiority complex to begin with.

In order to pay for his new mansion, Mr. Fox supplements his ink-stained wretch salary with a little thieving on the side, along with the help of his friend and general handy-man Kylie (Wolodarsky) who is prone to spacing out at odd intervals. This incurs the wrath of the farmers, led by the rail-thin chain smoker Mr. Bean (Gambon) who has nothing to do with the Rowan Atkinson character of the same name. They declare war on the fox responsible for the filching of their hard-earned wares, forcing the animals to tunnel for their lives. Can Mr. Fox devise a clever enough plan to save the animals and make everything fantastic again?

I want to make it clear from the beginning that I’ve always blown hot and cold when it comes to director Wes Anderson. While his best moments from movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou are arguably as good as any being produced today, he can also turn the quirk factor from charming to overbearing in a heartbeat. He is most definitely an acquired taste and one that I haven’t yet acquired.

However, to my mind this is the best work he’s done yet. The sight gags are often hysterically funny and the tone of the movie is just off-beat enough to be interesting. I suspect that Anderson may have dialed down things a bit in deference to the audience which is bound to include children (the source material is, after all, a classic children’s book penned by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). In toning things down and making the movie a bit more accessible, he makes the quirky elements all the more effective.

It helps that he has a great voice cast. Clooney is sly, witty and charming in a Danny Ocean vein, with a heaping helping of Everett (the lovable ne’er do well from O Brother Where Art Thou?) thrown in for good measure. Streep is solid as the very much long-suffering Mrs. Fox and Gambon throws the right amount of hissable evil to his villainous Mr. Bean. Most of the others read their lines in a deadpan monotone which makes the humor a bit dry but emphasizes the irony much better. Those who don’t appreciate that sort of humor will probably find this movie frustrating.

I have to make it known that while this is ostensibly a children’s movie, I think adults may wind up finding it more appealing than the wee ones. Kids are not known for being terribly accepting of things that are different than what they’re used to, and some may find the tone strange or the overall humor a bit boring. There are some over-the-top physical gags that will keep ‘em happy but by and large adults will get this a little more than the Nickelodeon set will.

The animation is stop-motion and highly textured, with the fur of the animals rippling in unseen breezes along with the grass. Trees bend in unison like an arboreal chorus line, and tunnels are filled with dirt, rocks and roots. It is not specifically realistic, more like hyper-realistic (if you take for granted that foxes walk upright, wear tailored clothes and speak with more intelligence than the average human). Animator Harry Selick, the man who did The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach was originally slated to animate this movie before delays caused schedule conflicts and Selick would go on to do Coraline. Instead Anderson hired Mark Gustafson who did the California Raisins commercials back in the day. Good choice, that.

Pleasant surprises make going to the movies a pleasure. I hadn’t been particularly looking forward to this movie but there’s a good chance this will wind up in our home video collection (which will likely be Blu-Ray by the time it gets out in that format). It isn’t often that I can say an animated feature will be appreciated more by adults than by children, but I think that I can say that with confidence here. Certainly there is that sense of magic and enchantment that is necessary in any animated feature, but with a tone and intelligence that is more adult. In other words, this is a movie that doesn’t talk down to children which is a good thing in my book. Next to Up, this is the best animated feature I’ve seen this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of great sight gags and a snappy off-kilter tone make this appealing to fans of indie films and Wes Anderson. Quirky without being overbearing. There are some nice vocal performances, particularly from Clooney and Gambon.

REASONS TO STAY: Although based on a children’s book and marketed to kids to a certain extent, this really isn’t a traditional children’s movie and if your tyke isn’t open to new things, they might find this strange or boring.

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly salty humor but really suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tree the Fox family lives in is based on a beech tree on the property of original book author Roald Dahl, and Mr. Fox’s study is a near-perfect recreation of Dahl’s own study in his garden hut where he did most of his writing.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will work just as well on a home screen but I kinda liked it on the big screen. You make the call.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: MirrorMask

New Releases for the Week of November 27, 2009


New Release Preview 11/27/09

It's hard to believe these guys are old dogs now.

OLD DOGS

(Disney) John Travolta, Robin Williams, Kelly Preston, Seth Green, Ella Bleu Travolta, Conner Rayburn, Lori Loughlin, Matt Dillon, Bernie Mac. Directed by Walt Becker

From the director of Wild Hogs comes this new comedy that similarly involves older men in a younger man situation. In this case, two successful businessmen on the verge of closing the biggest deal of their careers are derailed by the revelation that one of them is in fact a father and at one of the most critical junctures in their negotiations, will be babysitting his newfound brood. As will happen around kids, chaos ensues.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

(Apparition) Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flannery, Clifton Collins, Julie Benz. This is the sequel to the cult classic penned by Troy Duffy (the making of which was the subject of the acclaimed documentary Overnight). The brothers MacManus who have been taking it easy in Ireland since the events of the first film find themselves compelled to return to the mean streets of Boston when a priest is brutally gunned down.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for bloody violence, language and some nudity)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Fox Searchlight) Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Murray. From the minds of the late novelist Roald Dahl and director Wes Anderson (Rushmore) comes this animated feature that pits a clever, tricky fox against three brutal but not-so-bright farmers.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for action, smoking and slang humor)

Ninja Assassin

(Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune. Taken from the streets as a child by the legendary but lethal Ozunu Clan and trained as an assassin, Raizo becomes one of the deadliest killers on the planet. However he butts heads with the clan and is forced to vanish. Now, he finds an Interpol agent who has stumbled upon one of the secrets of the Ozunu Clan and is marked for death. He must protect her – and himself – from the world’s most skilled assassins and try to find a way to bring the clan down for good. This stylized anime/video game hybrid is from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language)

The Road

(Weinstein) Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Kody Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron. After a global catastrophe kills nearly all life on earth and ends civilization as we know it, a father and his son make their way across a barren, dangerous landscape trying to avoid predators of the natural and unnatural kind in an effort to make it to the coast and survival. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, this post-Apocalyptic thriller boasts an all-star cast.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for some violence, disturbing images and language)