WHEN WILL STEVEN SPIELBERG ACKNOWLEDGE KIDS’ MATURING SENSIBILITIES?
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Earlier this year, Jeff Nichols helmed the indie release “Midnight Special,” which felt like it was inspired by the complex and emotionally rich Steven Spielberg classic family movies of old—think “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” The contemporary story of a special boy (Jaeden Lieberher) on the run with his father (Michael Shannon) and a close friend/watchdog (Joel Edgerton) from both the government and a seemingly nefarious cult trafficked in all the family and young child-in-peril tropes Spielberg cornered in the market back in the early blockbuster days. There was even a visionary-on-a-dime aesthetic in terms of the special effects, saving the truly grand treats for key climatic moments.
Which puts more than a little pressure on Spielberg himself, who has a family-friendly entrant of his own claiming a coveted summer season slot, and it is a release weighed down with literary pedigree. Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” feels tailor-made for the sensibilities of one Steven Spielberg. It comes with a headstrong young protagonist named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) from a disadvantaged background, a partnership with a magical creature or alien (in this case, a rather large and quite agreeable giant embodied via technical wizardry by Academy Award-winner Mark Rylance), and a race against time with all humanity hanging in the balance. In fact, “The BFG” fits a bit too snugly for comfort. It could be argued that Spielberg lacks the willingness to alter his approach to the formula, to step outside his comfort zone to craft something distinct and potentially revolutionary.
The truly wondrous children’s stories of late have all displayed a deft blending of fantasy with a decidedly darker tone. On the more playful side, Wes Anderson took another Dahl narrative (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) and nestled it firmly within his arch indie mold, delivering a gem with real bite (quite literally, especially when it came to the presentation of hungry Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) chowing down.
Guillermo del Toro looked inward, wandering through his own twisted Catholic psyche for creatures and dilemmas in “Pan’s Labyrinth” that bravely explored a nightmarish world. Frank Herbert, in his science fiction classic “Dune” proclaimed, “fear is the mind killer.” Del Toro obviously subscribes to this notion and refuses to shield his inner child. Children, his films believe, should be allowed (or more emphatically, encouraged) to confront that which is most scary, to conquer these demons, so they can stride confidently on to the next challenge.
Spielberg girds his movies with a bright and shining armor of sentimentality. Doubt and the potential for failure never truly threaten Spielberg’s young charges. What this does, in effect, is undercut the tension and the burgeoning sense of delight that can dazzle us in what should be moments of pure joy. It is truly telling that a Spielberg filmmaking peer like Martin Scorsese, in “Hugo,” is able to achieve one of those marvelous sequences (right at the start of the film, in the race through the station) that we used to look forward to from the masterful Spielberg. Scorsese, remember, is known for unflinching drama and explosive physical/psychological violence, not escapist whimsy, but there he was in “Hugo,” taking our breath away (and employing 3D like he could teach James Cameron a thing or two).
“The BFG” should have been the kind of movie to draw comparisons to any of the titles I’ve mentioned. It longs for that status, knowing that it has that birthright, but its failure to achieve these heights falls squarely on the shoulders of Spielberg and his unwillingness to throw caution and the ever-reliable blueprint to the wind.
Take a leap of faith, the material whispers, when it should have screamed because Spielberg is now too far removed from earshot of the days when he might have dared to turn his gaze to the looming darkness. He can’t even recognize the idea of fear anymore. Once upon a time, Spielberg ranked among the giants in this storytelling realm, but now, he’s all too content to settle for being big and friendly, which is akin to forgetting the fundamental nature of your identity.
THE BFG Rating: [PG]; Grade: C