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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The BFG

THE BFG (Four Stars)
U.S.: Steven Spielberg, 2016

I. Big, Friendly

The BFG, which stands for ”Big, Friendly Giant,” is a beautifully-made and beguilingly creepy children’s movie, adapted by Steven Spielberg and company from the well-loved children’s book by Roald Dahl. Dahl himself was a peculiar chap, a 6-foot-six Norwegian-English ex-R. A. F. flying ace who flew against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Athens, and who wrote peculiar but wildly popular children’s books (many of which have been filmed) , as well as nasty little horror tales for adults (some of which were made into films and television shows). The movie of The BFG is meant for both ages and constituencies, and one of the reasons it succeeds with both, I think, is Mark Rylance.

Rylance, who plays The BFG (which stands for “Big, Friendly Giant”) won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar last year for Spielberg‘s Bridge Of Spies, a World War II story not intended for children. A multiple Tony and Olivier Award winner, Rylance also has one of the nicest, most likable, most humane faces in movies, even when it’s buried under latex and makeup and computer imaging. And in The BFG, he works magic with that countenance once again. It is a face bathed in beneficence and good will and such warmth that you feel he could melt an igloo by just stepping inside it.

In Bridge of Spies, Rylance played Col. Rudolf Abel, head of a Cold War-era Russian spy ring. Yet Rylance’s Abel didn’t look as if he could hurt a fly, or wish one hurt. In the dark, duplicitous world of international intrigue that the movie describes, which suggests a Frank Capra spin on John le Carré, Abel seemed more a fatherly paragon than a Cold Warrior. It was a tour de force performance. When you remembered Rylance’s Abel afterwards, it wasn’t so much for what he said as what you could sense him thinking as he sized up the other people in the picture. If you could have lived in the movie, you might have wanted Abel’s approval, even though he was a spy for The Enemy. No wonder he got an Oscar.

Spielberg casts him again, in an even more offbeat and lovable persona, as the title role, The BFG, in this spectacular adaptation of Dahl’s much-loved children’s book. Playing a 24-foot-high giant, who collects dreams and dispenses them to sleeping children in Victorian-era London, Rylance looks like Santa Claus’ better angel clumping though the shadowy streets, lugging dreams and gently kidnapping the movie’s child heroine, little Sophie (Ruby Barnhill). If anything, he looks even kindlier and more likable than he did in Bridge of Spies — something like that intensely lovable WW II-era Jewish character actor Felix Bressart, whose birdlike face and benevolent eyes were major assets in classic Hollywood movie comedies like Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner. But this was a bigger and more powerful Felix, someone who moves though nocturnal London and then his Giant homeland, in a manner both terrible and playful, like King Kong’s kindly keeper.

Dahl conceived the BFG — and his adventurous little friend Sophie — for one of the bedtime stories he regularly told his children; Sophie is named after one of his daughters. It’s a simple little story, which Dahl is said to have considered his favorite, about the friendship that strikes up between BFG and Sophie when he abducts her and takes her to GiantLand one night while on a dream distribution round. Giant Land is located somewhere past the clouds, in what looks like an ultimate stretch of English countryside, and BFG’s house is an ingeniously furnished cave-like hideaway, with, among other delights, a bathtub for BFG’s drinking cup and an airplame propeller for his hammock. Outside, are BFG’s evil relatives, all of whom dwarf him, a mere 24 feet. His wicked kin call him “runt” and make fun of him: they’re a horrid crew that includes the boss bully, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), backed by the brains of the group, Bloodbottler (Bill Hader ), the somewhat fey Maidmasher (played by Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), and other monsters with odious table manners and names like Childchewer, Bonecrusher and Gizzardgulper.

All of them, according to BFG are “Cannybullies” (or cannibals in BFG’s special language, Gobblefunk) and when these smelly brutes go on expeditions to Victorian London, it isn’t to hand out reveries to the little ‘human beans’ (human beings in Gobblefunk), but to kidnap and eat them. The BFG himself, fitting his radiant Bressartian countenance, is a vegeatarian who subsists on something cucumberish called a ’snozzcumber,” and a wonderful bubbly soft drink called frobscottle, whose green bubbles go down instead of up and make you indulge in great explosive farts.

The BFG feels he can’t leave Sophie in London, at her orphanage, because she might tell tales and create rancor between human beanery and the already rancorous giants. So he ensconces her in his eccentric Giant-size digs, where she can kick back with a frobscottle or two, and try to escape while avoiding the other giants. A judicious plan: when Bloodbottler sees her he immediately pops her in his Giant mouth, from which BFG must dauntlessly rescue her.

II. Gobblefunk

That’s the first part of the story, which is dominated by BFG‘s weird jabbering and semi-monologues, all in Gobblefunk, delivered in soft mutterings and putterings. In the second part, Sophie and BFG travel back to London, to Buckingham Palace and the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), to recruit the British Empire and the Buckingham guards into a War against the canny bullies, in a campaign (perhaps modeled on Dahl’s own RAF exploits) to forever end their murderful raids on other chidlers (or children). This is where most of the story’s comedy comes in, not that these fictitious royals could outdo the current Windsors for sheer sillybillyness.

No need for a Spoiler Moiler Alert, I hope? Anyway, like most of the great British children‘s stories, The BFG is both sweet and slightly poisonous, childlike and full of dark cundersurrents of violence and chaos. It presupposes a world where children, especially daring, adorable little girls like Sophie, battle monsters and explore strange lands full of strange people, and spread mayhem and rummytot (nonsense) and rumpledumpus (rumpus). And drink plenty of frobscottle. And……Pop!

I never read BFG as a child, but according to all the people I know who did, they all loved it and they are prepared to something horrible to me, something right out of a Dahl horror story in “Kiss Kiss,” if I don’t treat it with the disrespect and joyous irreverence it deserves. Well, I refuse to be intimmer-blimmerdated, even by filmofiles. But that’s why BFG seems a fit project for Spielberg and his a-team — Janusz Kaminski on the camera, Johnny Williams on music, Michael Kahn on editing, and Rick Carter on production design, plus a lot of assorted masters on various cinemagical CGI, performance capture and other technological feats. All these movie aces have given this show the kind of extraordinary technical wizardry that we human beans have almost begun to take for granted in many studio children‘s films, but against which most other movie fantasies are just so much snozzcumber.

Art the center of all this is that wondrous kindly beguiling mug of Mark Rylance, and the glumptious and, delumptious lingo of Gobble funk — a rib tickling language in which to swizzfiggle is to deceive, a giggler is a little girl, a giraffe is a jiggygaffe, a TV is a telly telly bunkum box, a trogglehumper is a nightmare and a movie or book reviewer is a swigger scribbler — while humple hammers mean “big,” a frumpkin fry is pumpkin pie and delicious is scrumdiddlyumptious. As for The Sherman Brothers‘ Mary Poppinsish tongue-twister “supercallifragilisticexpialidocious,” the Disney Company’s challenge to “antidisestablishmentarianism,” well, eat your heart out linguists and other snarks. Dahl is said to have been a great admirer of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray and Rudyard Kipling (In The BFG, there is a copy of Nicholas Nickleby by “Dahl‘s Chickens”) and, at his best, he can transport us back to the kind of worlds of words those wondrous writers opened up so well in the nineteenth century. When he starts slinging phrases and inventing wordy birds, it’s a game fit for Anthonius Besmirchus or Vladimiss KnockBlockoff.

III. A Pound of Flesh, Night and Fog

The BFG was adapted by Spielberg’s E. T. scripter, the late Melissa Mathison, and it has the entrancing pop poetic feel of an E. T. — not a great film, maybe, but often a wonderful one. If you’ve ever wanted to stand up to a mean giant and have another one (who looks like Felix Bressart) as your best friend, this movie will take you to Oz and back. Scrumdiddlyumptious!

But…There’s a problem I told you there were dark currents, and I wasn‘t kidding, You see, Roald Dahl, one of the most popular, best-selling and beloved of twentieth century storytellers, and deservedly so, lived two literary lives and maybe two political ones as well. While the tall Norwegian-Welshman was turning out well-loved children‘s tale after well-loved children‘s tale, he was also writing short stories of such grisly tension and horror, that they could make your flesh crawl. (Two of them, “Man from the South“ and “Lamb to the Slaughter” became two of the all-time classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV shows”; “Lamb,” which starred Barbara Bel Geddes as a murderess who gets away with it, was directed by Hitch.”) Though he spent more time on his children‘s books, Dahl was admired (and awarded) also for his tales of terror. I prefer them.

But when we talk about dark depths to a Roald Dahl bedtime story, we mean dark, For years, the flip side of his renown was a secret reputation as a bigot, a notoriety fueled by Dahl himself, who told an “Independent” interviewer. “I am certainly anti-Israel and I have become anti-semitic.” It is a prejudice shared by many of the British elite, among whom Dahl hobble-nobbled.

So I deliberately mentioned Felix Bressart’s benevolent Jewishness, because of the persistent rumors, spread by many (including Dahl himself) that the writer was anti-semitic. (It is said that his editors removed any tinge of anti-Jewish sentiment from his manuscripts, and he obviously went along with it.) This might seem to make him an odd choice for the source material of a movie from the director of Schindler’s List. But I told you that Dahl was peculiar, and perhaps Spielberg’s willingness to take some of the poisonous with the sweet, should be counted with the great Jewish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer’s defense of another brilliant but anti-semitic writer, Knut Hamsun.

But, as they say, trust the tale and not the teller. Or trust the tittletattler. Maybe that’s why Spielberg and his collaborators gave his BFG the face of a Jewish angel, and cast Mark Rylance to play him. Delumptiously.

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