Film

A Small Sigh for ‘The BFG,’ the Spielberg Letdown at Cannes

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There’s been much to celebrate at Cannes this year. But now, for the not-so-great news…

The idea of a Steven Spielberg film appearing at this festival might strike some as strange, but the director has a real history with Cannes. He won a Best Screenplay prize here for The Sugarland Express back in 1974, and E.T. premiered here in 1982. (More recently, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had its world premiere, in 2008.) And in some ways, The BFG, adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s story and due to be released later this summer by Disney, has some relevance to the other films playing here, what with its themes of pursuing your dreams (American Honey, Staying Vertical, Paterson) and the consequences of growing up (Toni Erdmann, Café Society), and countering the sorrows of the world with imagination and freedom and whatnot.

I’m told that Spielberg’s film is quite faithful to Dahl’s original, about a young orphan (Ruby Barnhill) who is abducted by a giant (Mark Rylance) and taken away to a magic land, where she discovers that he’s the sole friendly member of a race of giants — a kind and melancholy soul at the mercy of his bigger, man-eating brethren. I haven’t read the book, so those who adore it and are horrified at the idea of anyone changing a word may well enjoy Spielberg’s heartfelt, respectful version. But the film suffers from the one thing that Spielberg films almost never suffer from — stasis. He’s made, essentially, a “hangout” movie, one in which we’re supposed to luxuriate among the characters, but Spielberg isn’t a director who thrives in that kind of environment. You can sense his restlessness, too. He’s fascinated, as always, by objects — by the giant’s Rube Goldberg–like inventions and contraptions, and the creaky, colorful ornaments and potions in his little cave of wonders, where the film spends much of its first act. But when it comes to actual interactions between girl and giant, the energy dissipates. (This is also why all those scenes with the Lost Boys fall flat in Hook.) These types of movies need some sort of spontaneity, but that’s not generally Spielberg’s thing — though he can sometimes surprise you, as with the boat bonding sequences in Jaws.

The film theoretically picks up when it moves on to Buckingham Palace and to an audience with the Queen, where we get some decent laughs — particularly in a big set piece involving the giant having breakfast with the queen’s retinue, a scene punctuated by a series of massive farts (all straight out of Dahl, I’m told). But while Spielberg is an expert at offhand humor — throwaway lines, background slapstick, deadpan undercutting of suspense — he’s on less-secure footing with big comic sequences. He treats them like action scenes: They’re all build, anticipation, and climax, with little room left for unpredictability, charm, or freedom. Kids may well dig it. (Hell, my kid may well dig it.) But for me, The BFG was all anticipation of a different kind, leading to a massive letdown.

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