Building Entertainment: The Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The BFG

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The BFG

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Year: 2016

Source materials: Based on the 1982 novel of the same name by Roald Dahl.

Budget:  $140 million

Box office: $195.2 million

Plot: Sophie, a 10-year-old girl who lives in a London orphanage after her parents died when she was a baby, stays awake reading through the nights due to her insomnia. At 3 in the morning, or what she calls the “witching hour”, she sees an elderly giant outside her window who captures her and takes her into Giant Country. There, he explains that Sophie must stay with him for the rest of her life because she saw him and must not be allowed to reveal the existence of giants. He also explains that she will put herself at risk if she goes out in the open, as nine other giants (all of whom are much larger than him and favor the taste of children) inhabit Giant Country.

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When Sophie awakes, the Fleshlumpeater, the infantile leader of the man-eating giants, enters the smaller giant’s home and smells Sophie. The Fleshlumpeater nearly devours Sophie before exiting. The giant gives Sophie some replacement clothes, as hers are ruined, and Sophie convinces him to take her to Dream Country to catch dreams together. As they leave, they accidentally wake up the Bloodbottler, the more intelligent and cunning second-in-command to the Fleshlumpeater, who awakens the other man-eating giants. They torment and bully the friendly giant by throwing him around like a football and rolling him down a hill in a garbage truck. As the pair escape during a thunderstorm which drives the man-eating giants into the cave, the Fleshlumpeater and the Bloodbottler find Sophie’s blanket (which she had dropped before) and plan to find her. Climbing up the mountain, Sophie tells the giant that he shouldn’t allow the other giants to bully him.

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The pair arrives in Dream Country and catch a dream each. While there, the giant reveals that his only other alias (other than “Runt” which the other giants call him, as they are much larger) is “the Big Friendly Giant” and Sophie decides to call him “BFG”. The two then head to London to spread good dreams to sleeping children. As they do so, Sophie realizes that she has lost her blanket. The BFG realizes that the other man-eating giants know about her and she wakes up outside the orphanage. He explains that the last human child he took and raised was discovered and eaten by Fleshlumpeater’s group. She throws herself out of her window in the hope he will appear again to catch her, and he does.

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When they return to the BFG’s home, the other giants barge in and upend the place looking for Sophie, destroying much of the BFG’s hard work. Sophie evades detection and the enraged BFG finally stands up to them and drives them off with a hot fire iron. While hidden, Sophie finds the home of the last human to live with the BFG before becoming a victim of Fleshlumpeater’s group. She leaves his jacket on his bed and finds a portrait of Queen Victoria amongst his belongings. From this she devises a plan to forge a nightmare and give it to Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom. The nightmare consists of giants eating the children of England, the British Army fighting the giants, and Sophie appearing on her windowsill.

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They head to Buckingham Palace where upon waking from her nightmare, the Queen and her maid Mary find Sophie on the windowsill as in the nightmare with the BFG outside in the palace grounds. Sophie and the BFG inform the Queen, Mary, and Mr. Tibbs that the child-eating beasts in her dream are indeed real and must be stopped at all costs before they cause any more harm to her subjects. After a large breakfast they all enjoy, the Queen soon dispatches soldiers to Giant Country.

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The BFG plans to give the man-eating giants the regretful nightmare Sophie caught the night before, so they will be more compliant once caught. As she smashes the jar, they are almost all immediately consumed by guilt, but the Fleshlumpeater awakens and intercepts the nightmare before it can affect him. Despite this, the British army’s helicopters effortlessly ensnare and capture him and the other giants. They are lifted away onto an isolated island where numerous snozzcumbers and a large crate of snozzcumber seeds are left with them, much to their fury.

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In the aftermath, Sophie begins living in the Queen’s palace with Mary while the BFG returns to Giant Country to resume giving dreams to people and begins growing a wide variety of vegetables inspired by his time in England. The film ends with Sophie narrating that whenever she feels lonely, which is less often than before, she talks to him. He can still hear her. Leaning out of her window, she says “Good Morning, BFG”. At his writing desk, the BFG hears her words and smiles.

Background: Producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy began development on a live-action adaptation of The BFG in 1991, and set the project up at Paramount Pictures. By 2001, the script had been rewritten by Gwyn Lurie, and was greeted with positive feedback from the Dahl estate.While the screenplay lingered in development hell, Paramount subsequently lost the film rights and they reverted to the Dahl estate.

In September 2011, DreamWorks acquired the film rights to the book; Kennedy and Marshall were announced to produce, with screenwriter Melissa Mathison adapting the story. Kennedy had initially thought of Steven Spielberg as director, but hesitated asking him until a more concrete screenplay was presentable. Walden Media agreed to co-produce and co-finance the film with DreamWorks and Amblin in March 2015. A month later, Walt Disney Studios—which was under prior agreement to distribute the film through its Touchstone Pictures banner—also joined the production as a co-producer and co-financier, and shifted the film from a Touchstone release to a Walt Disney Pictures production instead.

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Music: John Williams composed and conducted the film’s musical score, marking the twenty-seventh collaboration between Spielberg and Williams. Williams found similarities with the scoring of Home Alone, admitting that writing music for The BFG “was really an opportunity to compose and orchestrate a little children’s fantasy for orchestra.”

Cast: Jermaine Clement returns as the voice and motion-capture of The Fleshlumpeater. Bill Hader returns as the voice and motion-capture of The Bloodbottler.

Sir Mark Rylance as the voice and motion-capture of The BFG. He appeared in the West End productions of Much Ado About Nothing in 1994 and Jerusalem in 2010, winning the Olivier Award for Best Actor for both. He has also appeared on Broadway, winning three Tony Awards: two for Best Actor for Boeing Boeing in 2008 and Jerusalem in 2011, and one for Best Featured Actor for Twelfth Night in 2014. He received Best Actor nominations for Richard III in 2014 and Farinelli and the King in 2017. His film appearances include Prospero’s Books , Angels and Insects, Institute Benjamenta, Intimacy, The Other Boleyn Girl, Ready Player One and Dunkirk. He won the Academy Award and BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Rudolf Abel in  Bridge of Spies. Ruby Barnhill as Sophie. She subsequently provided the voice of Mary Smith in the English dub of the film by Studio Ponoc, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Dame Penelope Wilton as Queen Elizabeth II. She is known for starring in Ever Decreasing Circles, The Borrowers, The Return of the Borrowers, and for her role as Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey. She also played the recurring role of Harriet Jones in Doctor Who. She has six Olivier Award nominations, for Man and Superman, The Secret Rapture, The Deep Blue Sea, John Gabriel Borkman, and The Chalk Garden, before winning the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Actress for Taken at Midnight. Her film appearances include Clockwise, Cry Freedom, Calendar Girls, Shaun of the Dead, Match Point, Pride & Prejudice, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and The Girl. Rebecca Hall as Mary. She got her breakthrough role in The Prestige. Other roles include appearances in  Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon, The Town, The Awakening, Iron Man 3, Transcendence, The Gift, and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

Rafe Spall as Mr. Tibbs. He is best known for his roles in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and  The World’s End. Additionally, he has appeared in films including A Good Year, One Day, Anonymous,  Prometheus, Life of Pi, The Big Short, The Ritual, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Michael Adamthwaite as the voice and motion-capture of The Butcher Boy. He is also known for playing the Jaffa Herak in Stargate SG-1. Live-action roles include Final Destination 5 and War for the Planet of the the Apes. Voice-over roles include Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes, Iron Man: Armored Adventures, Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow, and X-Men: Evolution.

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 Adam Godley as the voice and motion-capture of The Manhugger. His film roles include Love Actually, Around the World in 80 Days, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Nanny McPhee, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Battleship, and The Theory of Everything. Television roles include Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Powers, The Blacklist, and The Umbrella Academy.

 

Critical Reception: 

  • Justin Chang of Los Angeles Times called Rylance’s performance a “brilliant amalgam of performance-capture technology and peerless screen presence.”
  •  Scott Mendelson of Forbes described the film as “a charming, intelligent, and witty little adventure movie with strong special effects work in the service of a most unassuming story.” Mendelson also commended the film’s smaller scope in story, as well as Rylance and Barnhill’s interaction.
  •  Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph called the film “a significant technical accomplishment”, adding that “the infinitesimally detailed motion-capture technology alone, which stretches Rylance’s human performance to gargantuan proportions, is river-straddling bounds beyond anything that’s come before it.”
  •  Critic Matt Zoller Seitz highly appreciated Spielberg’s direction of the film, giving the film three and a half out of four stars. Seitz remarks, “I can imagine some adults finding the movie dull; ‘Nothing happens’, they’ll say. ‘And it’s too nice.’ But I can imagine other adults loving the film for helping them remember what it’s like to be young enough to hide from a movie monster because he’s big and weird-looking and then laugh because he’s kind of silly…”
  • Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter compared the film objectively to Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, as a “conspicuously less captivating, magical and transporting experience than its classic forebear.”
  • Peter Debruge of Variety, however, compared the film favorably to E.T., writing, “this splendid Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation makes it possible for audiences of all ages to wrap their heads around one of the unlikeliest friendships in cinema history, resulting in the sort of instant family classic “human beans” once relied upon Disney to deliver.”
  • A. O. Scott of The New York Times praised the film’s digital effects and visual style as “exquisite”, though he felt that the film lacked the excitement found in Spielberg’s previous fantasy films.
  • Richard Brody of The New Yorker stating that it “plays like a forced march of fun, a mandatory strain of magic and a prescribed dose of poetry, like a movie ready-made for screening in classrooms when a teacher is absent.” Brody, however, observes that “Spielberg is the BFG who’s menaced by bigger and more monstrous giants who aren’t interested in edifying their audiences but merely in consuming them—consuming the consumer, so to speak.”
  • Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film “technically impressive but listless and tedious… painfully cutesy, silly and gross rather than whimsical and funny.” He thought that the film moved far too slowly and was missing a “sense of wonder and adventure”, saying that he’d “rather see every one of Spielberg’s previous films before having to sit through “The BFG” again”.

My take: I found this movie guilty of the sin of just not being that interesting. Also a little bit of the BFG’s vocabulary goes a long, long way. The music is distinctly John William’s, but it sounds like he just used music he wrote for Harry Potter. The movie picks up when they get to Buckingham Palace, and I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting a fart joke involving Queen Elizabeth.

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 Available on Disney +?:Yes

Next Week: A Wrinkle in Time