THE BFG (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action/Peril, some Scary Moments and brief Rude Humor

BFG poster

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Melissa Mathison

(based on the novel THE BFG by Roald Dahl)

Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall & Bill Hader

Though his novels are magnificently imaginative, author Roald Dahl’s film adaptations seem cursed at the box office. This has occurred numerous times over the decades. Even though it found later success through TV airings and is now considered a timeless classic by many, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY originally flopped in the theaters (though its lesser Burtonized remake was a success). The same fate befell the creepy THE WITCHES in 1990 and cult favorite JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in 1996. Not even Steven Spielberg seems immune from the Dahl curse, because his adaptation of THE BFG has recently made headlines for bombing. However, that has nothing to do with the quality of this film itself, because BFG (which stands for Big Friendly Giant, get your mind out of the gutter) is a heartwarming fantasy that’s fun for all ages.

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Set in 1980’s London, THE BFG opens with young orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) awake at the witching hour (3 am). Though she’s suspected his presence many times, Sophie has never actually met the “boogeyman” until tonight. This boogeyman turns out to be a big eared, speech impaired giant (Mark Rylance in a motion capture performance) who takes Sophie back to his cave-like home. Unlike other giants in Giant Country, Sophie’s gigantic captor doesn’t eat children. Instead this Big Friendly Giant (or BFG, as Sophie calls him) opts to eat foul-tasting cucumber-like vegetables and catches dreams for sleeping children. Sophie and the BFG become fast friends, but the fearsome brutish giants begin to suspect that BFG is harboring a new pet…and a potential snack for them.

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BFG’s biggest (pardon the pun) highlights come from the many scenes between Sophie and the main giant. Mark Rylance (who won Best Supporting Actor for his other recent Spielberg outing) is oddly adorable as the naïve, well-intentioned Big Friendly Giant. Having known in advance that Rylance delivered his performance through motion capture, I distinctly recognized his face on this giant character for the entire running time…even if huge ears, frail hair, and a thin chin were morphed into his CGI looks. You have to wonder how much time Rylance spent on the set though, because a majority of the film seems to have young Ruby Barnhill acting against creatures and environments that aren’t really there. Huge props to this child actress, because she puts in a far better performance than one might expect from a kid acting by themselves. This story almost entirely focuses on the friendship of Sophie and Big Friendly Giant, while supporting characters seem to exist merely for jokes and plot devices.

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Weak supporting characters don’t lessen the colorful environments and weird-looking giants that Spielberg brings from the page to the screen. This big-screen BFG is very faithful to the source material, which means that there are magical moments, darker aspects (lines of dialogue referring to the other giants feasting on children), and a timelessly upbeat atmosphere to this fairy tale. That being said, it seems like Spielberg was dialing himself back a bit in THE BFG. With E.T. and his other family films as well as Roald Dahl’s books themselves, there was a sense to treat kids with a level of maturity that was rather unheard of at the time. There were dark, scary threats in these stories (on the page and screen) that made the happy, lighter moments shine even brighter. THE BFG tiptoes around a couple of these more intense areas, with the other giants set up as (literal) big antagonists, but Spielberg seems disinterested in these villains and they seem underused as a result.

THE BFG

Executed with visual flair, charm, and whimsy, THE BFG is a simple and sweet fantasy-adventure that’s bound to entertain kids, captivate grown-ups through impressive imagery, and feels like a throwback to a better time for live-action kid’s entertainment. Although it doesn’t go as far as it could have in certain areas and resorts to fart humor on a couple of occasions (one joke is actually well set up and executed), THE BFG is an all-around good movie. It’s not one of Spielberg’s best films, but it remains an entertaining fantasy that’s likely to please both adults and children.

Grade: B

WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

Wonka poster

Directed by: Mel Stuart

Written by: Roald Dahl

(based on the novel CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl)

Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson, Julie Dawn Cole, Paris Themmen, Denise Nickerson, Michael Bollner, Gunter Meisner

It’s hard to believe that WILLY WONKA bombed in it’s originally theatrical run. Indeed, that was the case. Disowned by Roald Dahl and remade by Tim Burton, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY has gone on to become the definitive version of this story (like it or not) and holds up as a timeless classic that will live on forever in the history of cinema. It’s officially a cult film (gaining lots of steam from frequent TV airings in the 1980’s) and one of the most influential cinematic fairy tales that’s perfect for all ages. A quirky sense of humor and child-like innocence hovers over the entire movie. WILLY WONKA is not without a couple of iffy moments (that can easily be forgiven), but it’s still a magical experience that hasn’t aged a day.

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Charlie Bucket is a young boy living in poor conditions with his single mother and four bedridden grandparents. The foreboding Wonka chocolate factory that sits undisturbed behind iron gates has always fascinated Charlie, but things get interesting when Willy Wonka (the candy man himself) announces that five golden tickets have randomly been placed in the wrappers of Wonka bars. Whoever holds these tickets will be granted a special tour of the Wonka’s factory and a chance to win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Through sheer luck, Charlie snags a ticket and goes on the tour with a group of four bratty kids who have a different vices. The factory is not necessarily the safest place in the world and moral lessons are deliciously dished out on the more rambunctious children.

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It’s hard to imagine a film enthusiast who hasn’t seen this 1971 classic or the 2005 incarnation. Rest assured, when compared to Tim Burton’s tolerable retelling, Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Wonka still stands as one of the most memorable characters to ever grace the silver screen. While Wilder can get a little too odd in some places (quoting a weird language for no apparent reason or throwing out a random phrase), he’s a powerhouse in this role. There are plenty of dark humored moments (e.g. his apathetic attitude towards a bad kid about to get their well-deserved comeuppance or their equally annoying parents), but the film is a sweet confection as a whole (kind of like one of Wonka’s tasty treats).

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All of the child actors and other adults inhabit roles that aren’t necessarily meant to be fully fleshed-out. These are archetypes of certain questionable morals and values, while Charlie is wholly innocent (though not without a few character faults of his own). It serves the purpose of this being a cautionary tale for young ones, but also an uplifting fable that has stood the test of time. The Oompa-Loompa factory workers have since gone on become iconic as well. I could easily see some young toddler being freaked out by these orange-faced, green-haired creatures (played by a barrage of little people), but they also have that sense of whimsy without ever resembling anything cute.

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One thing that I had completely forgotten about was just how funny the skit-like segments tossed in the opening third of the film are. As the search for the golden tickets increases, the viewer is treated to various adults (scientists, cops, therapists, etc.) taking drastic measures to find them. These bits provide a lot of humor as well as showcasing the passage of time in entertaining ways. Something also needs to be said about how the film is deliberately paced in letting the viewer sweat out if Charlie will ever wind up with a golden ticket. I know this story well (as do tons of other people), but there is a palpable unease in the opening third that does make you worry for Charlie. Transitions into songs can seem a little sudden. Words popping up as the Oompa-Loompas sing a couple of their tunes make these scenes seem more like a music video than the actual film itself and “Cheer Up, Charlie” is a bland piece that sticks out like a sore thumb. The rest of the music and unforgettable score are fantastic. “World of Pure Imagination” is the song that always pops into my head every time this movie is mentioned and holds as the best song in the bunch (the score of this number also serves as a suitable number to the opening and end credits).

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It’s a little shocking to find that Roald Dahl (whose script was unofficially re-written by David Seltzer) disowned this movie as a kind of insult to his material and that Tim Burton sticks closer to the actual novel. I particularly love the inclusion of the Slugworth character (who wasn’t a huge part of the original book and didn’t pop up in the remake) and this makes the ending something for more worthy of cheering for. The production seems to be similar to 1980’s THE SHINING as far as the author hating it and the film becoming a celebrated classic, despite the author’s disapproval. WONKA was the fifty-third highest grossing film in 1971 and that’s nothing to brag about (only 4 million total). What is worth noting is how the film has surpassed the odds and become a seminal wonder. This joyous, colorful fairy tale contains moral lessons without coming off as forced. It’s the definitive version of this story and there are many solid reasons for that. Despite a bad song and a couple of overly weird lines from Wilder, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is the kind of movie that will live on forever as it is a work of pure imagination!

Grade: A

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