Roald Dahl is the kind of highly imaginative, inventive, and subversive children’s author that makes one wonder why more of his books don’t end up as movies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the best known, and there’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and the rather spooky for kids 90s film, The Witches (it at least spooked me as a kid). For such a prolific author, it’s a little curious he has so few film credits. Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful directors of the modern era, so if anyone could wrangle Dahl’s wondrous worlds onto the big screen, he should. The BFG should be a transporting experience brought to vivid life with cutting-edge technology. All the special effects in the world, however, can’t solve a raft of nagging script problems that manage to take the fantastic and make it boring and predictable.
In 1980s London, little orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) is abducted one night when she spots a giant blowing a mysterious trumpet into the windows of sleeping children. Fortunately for Sophie her captor is the BFG (Mark Rylance), which stands for Big Friendly giant, and he’s a vegetarian, having sworn off the bone-eating habits of his nastier giant peers. In Giant Country, the BFG collects and cultivates dream particles, concocting special mixtures that he then shares with sleeping children. The other giants bully and snidely dismiss the puny BFG. Sophie and the kindly BFG must work together to stop the larger giants from going back to London and dining on innocent children.
The BFG has some pretty big friendly problems when it comes to its misshapen plot structure and its alarming lack of urgency or escalation. We’re all familiar, consciously or unconsciously, to the three-act story structure at this point, which is the principle formula for screenwriting. The BFG gets started pretty quickly, abducting Sophie and taking her to the land of giants by around the 15-minute mark, and from there the movie seems to take a leisurely stroll. I can’t really tell you where the act breaks are because the movie just sort of luxuriates in the meandering interaction between the BFG and his human pupil. There’s the initial threat that the other cannibalistic giants will discover her and this threat pops up in a handful of set pieces where Sophie has to constantly find new hiding places. Unfortunately, this threat never really magnifies or changes. She might get caught, and then she doesn’t. She might get caught, and then she doesn’t. There’s a repetition to this threat with our antagonists at no point getting more threatening. This is and a lack of a narrative motor make the movie feel rudderless, plodding from one moment to the next without a larger sense of direction. And then the third act comes (spoilers), presumably, when Sophie and the BFG travel back to London to try and recruit the Queen of England’s (Penelope Wilton) help. This sequence includes an extended breakfast that it punctuated by the memorable climax of watching the Queen fart and her little corgies fly around the room powered by their flatulence. It has to be the climax because what follows certainly doesn’t follow. Within five minutes, the BFG leads the Brits back to the land of giants and they restrain and airlift all the other giants in shockingly easy fashion. It’s a victory that feels relatively hollow because of its ease. These giants were never much of a threat to begin with, which is why we spent more time deliberating over dream ingredients than a retreat from man-eating colossuses.
Another aspect of Dahl’s novel that falls flat on screen is his verbal gymnastics and witticisms. It just doesn’t work with actors repeating the words without the text in front of your eyes. Listening to the BFG talk for any extended period of time is like being stuck with a crazy person muttering to him or herself. I would estimate that at least 60% of the BFG’s dialogue is folksy malapropisms. It’s not endearing and grows rather tiresome, especially with the unshakable stagnation of the movie’s plot. And so we get scene after scene of a big CGI creature talking verbal nonsense. Are children going to be entertained by any of this? Are they going to be engaged with the giant’s gibberish or will they find it one more impenetrable aspect of a movie and a story that seems to keep the audience at length? I couldn’t engage with the movie because it never gave me a chance to invest in what was happening. The BFG is a gentle soul and shouldn’t be bullied by his giant brethren, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically love him. I didn’t.
For a Spielberg movie this feels oddly absent his more charming and whimsical touches. There are scant moments where it feels like Spielberg is playing to his abilities in this fantasy motion capture world, like exploring the underwater land where the BFG gathers his dream ingredients, and in the narrow and messy escapes Sophie has not to be caught. It’s a shame that the creative highs of Spielberg in full imagination mode are too often absent the rest of the movie. He too feels like he’s coasting, allowing the technology and the fantasy setting to do the heavy lifting. The land of the giants is a bit too underwhelming as far as fantasy worlds go. It’s simply too recognizable except for slight peculiarities, like “snozcumbers.” It’s not an enchanting location and we’re not given enchanting characters, and with the little narrative momentum or escalating stakes. I experienced a lot more fun and whimsy from Spielberg’s other major mo-cap movie, the nearly forgotten 2011 Adventures of Tintin. The action sequences especially had such a lively sense of comic brio and imagination that was pure Spielberg. I get no such feeling from The BFG. If you told me that Robert Zemeckis had made this movie I wouldn’t have blinked. I don’t know if Spielberg was hoping to recapture that E.T. magic with screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who passed away in 2015) but this isn’t close.
I will credit the special effects department for the amount of work put into Rylance’s BFG visage, which looks eerily like the Oscar-winning actor. The range of the facial expressions is another sign that mo-cap performances are just as legitimate as live action flesh-and-blood performances. I can admire the technical feats of the character while not exactly feeling that much enjoyment from that character. The interaction between the computer elements and the real-life elements could be better, most bothersome with little Sophie interacting with the giant’s giant personal things.
I was left wondering whom The BFG is supposed to appeal to. I think kids and adults will be bored by its slow pace and stagnant, minimal stakes, weird and unengaging characters and their annoyingly impenetrable speech habits, and the overall lack of charm and wonder. It’s saying something significant when the most mesmerizing part of a fantasy movie is watching the Queen of England, her dogs, and a room full of her royal servants violently fart green clouds of noxious gas. That was the one moment in my screening where the kids in the room seemed to be awake. Otherwise the BFG character must have calmly put them to sleep with his prattling gibberish. It’s not an insufferable movie and there are fleeting moments of entertainment, but they drift away like a memory of a dream. There just isn’t enough going on in this movie to justify its near two-hour running time. Not enough conflict, not enough world exploration, not enough character bonding, not enough whimsy, and not enough entertainment. It feels too lightweight to matter and too dull to enchant. The BFG could have used more farts. That would be a sign of life.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Reminiscent of adult thrillers that dominated the 1990s, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a slick and fiendishly enjoyable movie that unravels methodically and is comfortable dealing with moral ambiguity. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are transitioning to a new city and a new job when they meet an old high school acquaintance, Gordon (Edgerton). It seems at first like “Gordo” is going to be a scary stalker with boundary issues, but Edgerton, who also wrote and directed, keeps pushing his familiar narrative further, adding different shades to the trio of characters and allowing them to be flawed humans revealing their secrets. It’s a movie that’s not afraid to go dark and dwell in the unknown, especially with a note-perfect morally murky ending that leaves the viewer in the same wonderfully cruel sense of uncertainty and gnawing curiosity. Bateman pays against type as a rather strident character who definitely has issues with sticking to the full truth. Hall is more than a damsel in distress. She’s overcoming serious problems that she may or may not bear some culpability for, which makes her performance that much more interesting. Edgerton doesn’t overplay any off-kilter tics; his Gordo is a bit off, and always comes across like he’s holding back saying more, but his impression is a lot more wounded animal than psychopath. The screenplay is a model of efficiency and the secrets and reveals are evenly doled out. The Gift is an entertaining thriller with dark turns, deliberate pacing and structure, morally grey characters, comfort in ambiguity, and a healthy respect for its mature audience.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Third movies in superhero franchises always seem to be a precarious proposition; X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, Superman 3, all graveyards of rushed productions, artistic compromises, and general complacency. Usually the third movie is when the hero has what he or she (but mostly he) has built up stripped down. It’s the same case with Iron Man 3, which short of a noisy finale has a surprisingly small amount of actual Iron Man, much like the scant amount of Batman in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises. That’s fine with me because the appeal of this franchise has been Tony Stark the character, not the mechanical heroics. Iron Man 3 is co-written and directed by super Hollywood scribe Shane Black, the man who gave us Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the 2005 gem that resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was this fact alone, especially after how disappointing Iron Man 2 was, that got me jazzed about a third outing. Black’s characteristic sense of humor, genre blending, and mass appeal thrills helps to make Iron Man 3 an enjoyable if flawed movie-going experience and a suitable kickoff to the summer movie season.
Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is having trouble sleeping, haunted by the near world-ending events in New York City from his time with the Avengers. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), head of Stark Industries and Tony’s main squeeze, wants her man to take a mental health break. He’s spending as much time as possible in his lab, concocting a whole army of different Iron Man suits. His latest invention allows him to control a suit prototype with his body, compelling pieces of his amour to his person with a wave of his arms. He’ll need the help because the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearful terrorist leader, is staging a series of bombings around the United States, leaving behind videos taunting his foes. After an attack that hits close to home, Stark challenges the Mandarin and the bad guy brings the fight to the man of iron, decimating his home and forcing Stark to flee. In Tennessee, Stark unravels the mystery behind the Mandarin, which involves a brilliant scientist (Rebecca Hall), a nefarious biotechnology businessman (Guy Pearce), and even the president of the United States himself.
The best part of the first film was watching a brilliant guy become Iron Man; sure the superhero stuff was fun but it wasn’t what made the movie special. Downey Jr. as a charismatic, egotistical, self-involved but ultimately redeemable middle-aged playboy is what made the movie special. With Iron Man 3, he has to rely on his wits for large portions, which are still considerable. It’s a clever way to make a billionaire playboy with out-of-this-world technology empathetic. He’s never going to be an everyman but that doesn’t mean we can’t empathize. With that said, I still find his whole PTSD ordeal after events from The Avengers to be shaky. He’s already had near death experiences before so unless we get a bigger explanation (proof of alien existence and superiority? Knowing a return is inevitable?) I find it hard to fathom that a guy as outwardly unflappable as Tony Stark would be hobbled by his super team-up activities. Also, now that we exist in a post-Avengers universe, wouldn’t the ongoing attacks by the Mandarin warrant some sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. response or monitoring?
Likewise, I really appreciated how Black developed his action sequences, routinely giving Stark limitations. The concept of a suit that can assemble by itself and fly hundreds of miles is silly, sure, but it also opens up fun possibilities and questions of identity. At one point, Stark has one arm and one leg of his suit, allowing him to fight back but having to get creative with his moves. A fight while he’s handcuffed also provides enjoyable thrills. During the home attack, Stark’s suit is a prototype and will not allow him to fly, so he has to get inventive, literally shooting a grand piano at a helicopter. The best action scene is when Iron Man has to save a dozen people from plummeting to their deaths after being sucked out of Air Force One in midair. I wish the solution hadn’t been so quick but it’s a thrilling sequence with terrific aerial photography.
Until the finale, which is all-robot action, you could accuse the film of being too shrift in its action sequences, rarely lasting longer than a few brief minutes. They’re still quite entertaining, and well directed, with Black nicely drawing out organic complications and making good use of geography. We know that Black can write a glorious action sequence, but unless you were one of the lucky souls who saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s a surprise that the man can direct one so well. There’s a nice sense of style on display but it never becomes overpowering, and thankfully it’s presented in a manner that you can, shocker, tell what is happening onscreen. Black definitely has a good eye for visuals and scene compositions but he also knows how to deliver great crowd-pleasing moments that we want in our summer movies. The climax is pretty busy with lots of keen Iron Man suits that you just know are there to be purchasable toys first and foremost. The sustained action is pretty involving, and Black is an expert at establishing mini-goals and developing naturally. Even as it starts to devolve into a hectic video game-like frenzy, there are enough changing goals and reversals to keep you satisfied for the long haul.
The movie’s villains are somewhat nebulous and employ an Evil Plot that is too convoluted by half. The Mandarin is an intriguing figure but undergoes some changes that will surely leave fans of the comic steaming mad. I accept that movies are an adaptation from the source material, and have no real personal affinity for Iron Man or his rogues’ gallery, so I wasn’t bothered by the notable change. It fits the tone of the movie as well as becomes another plot point in a convoluted Evil Plot. I will agree with detractors on this point: after the invasion in The Avengers, alien technology, the source of the Mandarin’s powers in the comic, is credible. I don’t really understand the political commentary at play with the Mandarin either. More so, and I’m trying to be delicate with spoilers, Iron Man 3 is really a movie about Tony Stark versus… lava people. Sure they have superhuman brains that provide regeneration and superior human ability. It just seems that all these super humans decide to do is… heat things up. They glow red, melt through walls, and are essentially lava creatures. Apparently Tony Stark needs to take some cues from that old U.S. Marines ad where the guy fights a giant lava monster (“Have you been attacked by a lava monster recently? No? You’re welcome – signed, the Marines”). The villains, while weak, are still probably the best in the series. It’s been a fairly weak franchise for antagonists.
Coming from Black, you’d expect an increase in the implementation of comedy, though Iron Man 3 probably walks just up to the line. It almost gets too jokey but pulls back enough. Adam Pally’s (TV’s criminally underseen Happy Endings) small bit as an obsessed fan of Stark is probably the testing point. Tony Stark has issues sure, especially if Disney will ever let the movies explore his history with alcoholism, but the man is never going to challenge Bruce Wayne for the brooding loner throne. Stark is a quipper, a loudmouth who uses humor as a weapon and a shield, and brought to vivid life by Downey Jr., the man will always be a comedian. That’s not to say that the drama lacks proper seriousness. However, Black pushes a lot more comedy into the film than we’ve seen in the earlier installments. Most of it is welcome and even when the movie goes into mass appeal mode, especially in Act Two when a plucky kid aids Stark, Black covers the familiar without losing his edge. You’ll likely recognize the buddy cop patter from Black’s other movies but it still works. There are several setups that look like we’re getting Big Hero Moments, and then Black decides to undercut them for a good laugh. Iron Man 3’s consistent sense of humor makes the movie feel even faster paced.
Downey Jr. (The Avengers) is still the MVP of the modern Marvel-verse in my eyes, and even two years removed from 50, he’s still got enough energy to power a small army. He’s still pulling the same schtick so to speak, which may wear thin for others after four starring appearances as Tony Stark, but I still find him naturally appealing. Paltrow (Contagion) gets a chance to do more than the standard damsel in distress that the women function in these movies. I regret that after being given a tantalizing new direction the movie reverts her back to standard damsel sidekick so speedily. Ho hum. Kingsley (Hugo) just seemed wrong for the part from the start, never mind the nebulous ethnicity issues. His vocal fluctuations and strange emphasis proved too distracting for me. However, he proves to be a better match after the Mandarin’s twist. Pearce (Lawless) is a pretty solid, smarmy bad guy and man has he got an impressive physique going on. It’s just nice to see great character actors from Hall (The Town) to Miguel Ferrer (Traffic) to Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) in a high-profile mega blockbuster. Even little Ty Simpkins (Insidious) is pretty good as the kid who helps out Stark. My tolerance for child acting has gone downhill as I have gotten older, but the kid is genuinely good without falling into the common trappings of being cloying or overly precocious.
Iron Man 3 is a definite improvement over the overstuffed, undernourished 2010 sequel. It ends on a moment that feels like something close to closure, but you know, as the credits helpfully indicate, that Tony Stark will appear again, at least in 2015’s Avengers 2. The bigger question is can this franchise exist without the participation of Downey Jr.? I’m sure we’ll all find out eventually considering the character is too profitable to simply retire once Downey Jr. decides he’s had enough. We’ve had five Batmans after all, not counting Adam West. However, never has a character seemed so intrinsically linked with an actor before. Downey Jr. just is Tony Stark, and while some capable young male lead out there in Hollywood will put up a valiant effort, it will never be the same. Iron Man 3 is further proof that the appeal of the franchise is not the explosions and action set pieces, which it does a fine job with; it’s the man inside the suit and the formidable actor that gives this franchise its juice. Spending more time with Stark is a bonus, and Black’s zippy sense of comedy and acute knowledge of the architecture of popcorn thrills allows the movie to fly by with ease. While the first film reigns supreme, Iron Man 3 is a fitting and pleasurable enough blockbuster that reminds you why we still love this guy.
Nate’s Grade: B