The BFG

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief scene with drunken characters
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-style violence, reference to off-screen violence, including death of children, but no characters injured
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 1, 2016
Date Released to DVD: November 28, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01G4N5Q0A
Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney

Steven Spielberg. the director who, with his partners, named their movie studio Dreamworks, understands that movies are like a guided dream. Roald Dahl’s story is about a Big Friendly Giant who collects, selects, edits, and delivers dreams to make people happy and conveys messages that are beyond the capacity of verbal human interaction. Clearly, this story connects with Spielberg profoundly, and it shows.

At 3 am one night in 1983, a girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is the only one awake in the horrible London orphanage where she lives. We can see right away that she is brave and smart, even fierce, as she threatens to call the cops on some drunken revelers making noise in the street. But then she witnesses a disturbance of another kind. Someone very, very large, as tall as her building, is walking quietly — no, stealthily — through the streets.

And then an enormous hand reaches silently and carefully into the window of the room filled with sleeping girls and the very awake Sophie, and grabs her, quilt and all. It is a giant.

He knows how to stay hidden. We see him employ some clever camouflage that keeps the Londoners from seeing him, and then takes off for Giant country, far, far away, but a matter of moments if you’ve got giant legs to leap with. Sophie is terrified. She is sure that the giant wants to eat her. But he does not eat children, he tells her, in his funny, corkscrew, word-twisting language. He has only taken her because she saw him, and he cannot risk her telling anyone about him. He has taken her to keep her from giving away his secret, which means she will have to stay with him forever.

Sophie is determined to run away. But that night, in the crow’s nest of a ship that is one of the many curios crowding his home, she dreams that she escapes, only to be captured and eaten by some even bigger giants. Through this dream, she begins to understand what her giant, soon to be known as the BFG, can’t explain any other way. She cannot be safe if she leaves his house. The other giants, who are as big to him as he is to Sophie, are uncivilized brutes and bullies. They eat “human beans,” including children (a bit less grisly than in the book, but still creepy).

The BFG, whose huge ears listen to everything, even the quietest whisperings of the heart, collects dreams. Sophie goes with him to the place where dreams grow, and she helps him deliver the happiest possible dreams to a young boy and his family. The lonely little girl and the lonely giant get to know one another, and become friends. But the other giants can smell her, and they won’t leave the BFG and Sophie alone. They have to come up with a plan to get rid of the child-eating giants forever. It will involve dreams. And corgis.

This is a slighter story than Dahl’s richly imagined Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, with much of its humor coming from the BFG’s mangled words and his affection for his favorite beverage, Frobscottle, a fizzy green drink with bubbles that float down, rather than up. The noisy and powerfully butt-lifting physical consequence of this downward gas is what the BFG calls a whizpopple. And there is also an extended scene with the BFG trying to fit into the “bean”-sized world, sitting on a bench on top of a piano and using a rake as a fork.

That almost doesn’t matter, given Spielberg’s gorgeously imagined world and the performances of Mark Rylance as the BFG and Barnhill as Sophie. Rylance, whose last collaboration with Spielberg won him an Oscar for “Bridge of Spies,” is transformed via motion capture into the BFG, and does not lose an atom of his ability to express the BFG’s melancholy, isolation, gentleness, and integrity.

Spielberg has always been superb in casting, especially with children. Barnhill’s performance would be remarkable if she were interacting in a built, rather than virtual world. Given that in much of the movie she was probably looking at a tennis ball hanging in front of a green screen, it is truly astonishing. She so clearly believes in what we see around her and to her character’s friendship with the BFG that we believe in it, too. Next-level special effects help, too, with utterly seamless interaction between the digital and practical effects and gorgeous, wonderfully intricate production design that makes the BFG’s home both cozy and strange. The setting for retrieving the dreams is enchanting, though the visualization of the dreams themselves is not up to the level of the rest of the design. But the friendship between the BFG and Sophie is real magic.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy peril and some violence (no characters hurt), references to children being eaten by giants, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: What dream would you most like to have? Why wasn’t the BFG like the other giants?

If you like this, try: Roald Dahl books and movies including “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Matilda,” and “James and the Giant Peach”

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3D Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy

The Legend of Tarzan

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue
Profanity: Some racist epithets and mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing and graphic images and scary animals
Diversity Issues: Historical abuse and enslavement
Date Released to Theaters: July 1, 2016

Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
“The Legend of Tarzan” gets some things right. The swinging through the trees is exhilarating. Alexander Skarsgård (Tarzan/John) and Margot Robbie (Jane) are beautiful to look at, as is the African scenery. The CGI animals are pretty good. Thankfully, other than a few flashbacks, it avoids dwelling on the over-familiar origin story. And it is nice to see a shift from the colonialist perspective of some Tarzan stories to recognition of the real-life atrocities inflicted by Belgium’s King Leopold on the African natives, exploiting their resources and enslaving their people.

But there’s a lot the movie does not get right. It’s not terrible; it’s just oddly off, as though it was assembled by a committee that didn’t communicate with each other very well. The first problem is that Tarzan is depressed. I do not know why people seem to think that we somehow make classic literary characters more sophisticated or modern by making them depressed, but I’ve had enough of it. We’ve already had a depressed Batman and a depressed Superman this year. We don’t need a depressed Tarzan. Tarzan, now using his birth name of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, is living in England when we first see him. Presented with an invitation to return to the Congo as the guest of King Leopold, he declines. Lifting a pinky as he sips from a porcelain teacup to demonstrate just how far he has come from running naked through the jungle, he explains simply, “It’s too hot.” He does not want to go back. But an American named George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson and a toupee) persuades him to return, so he can investigate charges of abuse and enslavement. Jane is thrilled to return to Africa, and John reluctantly agrees to let her come along.

The invitation from the King was engineered by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, in his usual ultra-civil, ultra-evil mode). If he can deliver John to Chief Mbonga (a regal Djimon Hounsou) the chief will give him access to the diamond mines. When John escapes, Rom takes Jane and some of her tribal friends prisoner.

There’s an unfinished quality to the film. The tone shifts from a literally heavy-handed early image of a cruel hand wrapped in a rosary ripping a flower from its stem to some awkward and anachronistic attempts at humor (Samuel L. Jackson after a diplomatic speech: “And I thought the Civil War was long!”), and distracting random camera-swooping. But the real drag on the film’s momentum is Tarzan himself, who is so morose that the energy seeps out of the story. Reportedly, Skarsgård spent six months working out all day. He looks great, but to be honest he already looked great, and the fixation with male or female movie stars remaking their bodies for roles is barbaric. What needed the work was the script.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence, guns, spears, explosions, predator animals some disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some sexual references, and brief strong and racist language.

Family discussion: Why did John and Jane have different views about going back to Africa? How did John’s idea of honor change and why?

If you like this, try: the many other movie and television portrayals of Tarzan and the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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List: Tarzan Goes to the Movies

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This week’s new “Tarzan” movie should inspire families to check out the many, many earlier versions of this classic story.

In 2012, Neely Tucker of The Washington Post wrote a wonderful tribute to Tarzan in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first Tarzan story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, with a fascinating gallery of portrayals of this now-iconic character.  Burroughs had no special calling to be a writer.  According to Tucker’s story, after a series of unsuccessful jobs,

Burroughs was suddenly in his mid-30s and pawning his wife’s jewelry for cash.

And then — there’s always a “and then” in these kinds of stories — he was reading a pulp magazine, checking to see whether his company’s ads were correctly placed. He thought the magazine’s stories were so poor that even he could write better.

So he sat down and wrote a science-fiction piece, “Under the Moons of Mars,” and sold it to All-Story. (Today, you know this tale as “John Carter,” which inspired the unsuccessul Disney film.)

He sold it for $400, roughly the modern equivalent of $9,300. This got his attention.

“I was not writing because of any urge to write nor for any particular love of writing. I was writing because I had a wife and two babies,” he later told an interviewer. “I loathed poverty and I would have liked to put my hands on the party who said that poverty is an honorable estate.”

The character of Tarzan was an instant sensation, and Burroughs was a good enough businessman that he not only copyrighted his stories, but he trademarked the character.

Copyrights expire, but trademarks do not.  Burroughs wrote two dozen Tarzan books but the character is best known for its many popular movie and television versions, from Elmo Lincoln’s portrayal in the silent era to an animated Disney feature film with music by Phil Collins.

Olympic gold medalist Buster Crabbe played “Tarzan the Fearless” (and also Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers).

There was a 1960’s television series starring Ron Ely.

And one with Wolf Larson in the 1990’s.

Joe Lara starred in “Tarzan in Manhattan.”

My favorite is still the classic with swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.

Burroughs’ version of Tarzan was highly educated. He had the books left behind by his late parents and was able to speak many languages.  But what makes the character so enduringly appealing over a century is the idea of him as completely isolated from civilization, raised in the jungle. That gives us a chance to consider the deepest questions about what makes us human at the same time as we have the pleasure of imagining ourselves, like Tarzan, Jane, Boy, and Cheetah, swinging through the trees.

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My Visit to LAIKA for “Kubo and the Two Strings”

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P6060108On my first trip to LAIKA, for “The Boxtrolls,” they told me their mantra was “No straight lines, no right angles, no perfect circles.” The world of that film was sooty, steampunk, Victorian. I visited again to learn about their new film, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” For this “fantasy-action-adventure quest story” they have moved literally to the other side of the world, geographically, aesthetically, and culturally. This film takes place in “a mystery, magical ancient Japan,” inspired by 17-century Japanese woodblock prints and origami. It is spare but richly imagined. Origami, which is all straight lines and precise, sharp corners, is at the essence of the story. And LAIKA remains one of my favorite places in the world to visit.

Producer Arianne Sutner told us that in addition to the real-life sets and characters built for stop-motion photography, all of the CG is done in-house. “Every panel is touched. Everything is touchable. We studied Japanese artists as sincerely and honestly as we could.” And they brought in experts in Japanese culture, art, and history to advise them.

The cast includes Charlize Theron as a monkey and Matthew McConaughey as a warrior who is “half samurai, half beetle, and a human, flawed character.” Kubo’s grandfather is played by Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara plays his two aunts.

All photos copyright Nell Minow 2016
All photos copyright Nell Minow 2016

Visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson explained that while they are relying more on CG effects for backgrounds and non-central characters, “we embrace technology in a way that is respectful to the stop-motion and honors it.” He joked that his group’s reaction to seeing a crowd scene in the script was, “Couldn’t we just have a meeting in a cave with a couple of close friends around?” “No, we need a village.” To make sure that the CG characters, even in the background, look consistent with the “built” figures, they photograph the physical materials like fabrics at a microscopic level, and use the same director for physical and digital scenes. “You’re really really good at your job if no one realizes you did anything.”

laika3Many fantasy films have a monster, but this movie has three, and each presented its own challenges. The Hollow Bones (an enormous skeleton) was “screaming to be digital” because it was so complicated. “But we always make things really really hard on ourselves.” So, they created the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. They love to take on new challenges or revisit old ones. “Remember that thing that was a disaster a few years ago? Let’s try it again!”

I love the way LAIKA brings together every kind of technology and material. While one of the artisans is using a glue gun and a mylar balloon from the party store, another is using NASA-level complexity algorithms to create clouds and water. We saw puppets that incorporated a bridal veil and LED lights, an effect created with a rubber dog toy, and how one prop that they burned looked less authentically charred than a more stylized version made with paint. And we saw clips of scenes on water that looked so real we could almost feel the ocean spray on our faces. And there’s the underwater garden of eyes, and the boat made of leaves. The sets and puppets were dazzling, and I am sure the movie will be, too.

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Behind the Scenes

Where You’ve Seen Them Before — “The BFG”

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“The BFG” stands for Big Friendly Giant, and it is a new movie from Steven Spielberg, based on the book by Roald Dahl.
There are no big-name stars in the film, but there are some familiar faces, with some of the world’s best character actors. After you’ve seen “BFG,” try some of their other films.

The cast includes Mark Rylance in the title role, and while he did win an Oscar earlier this year for his performance as a Soviet agent in Spielberg’s last film, “Bridge of Spies,” he’s better known for his three-time Tony Award-winning theater work than for movies or television.

You’ve seen him, though, if you watched “Wolf Hall,” where he played Thomas Cromwell.

And here he is as Richard III:

The wonderful Penelope Wilton plays an important role I won’t spoil here. She is best known for “Downton Abbey.”

I first became a fan after seeing her in the brilliant “Norman Conquests,” three intertwined plays by Alan Ayckbourn.

Rafe Spall plays a footman. He was in “The Big Short,” “What If,” and “Life of Pi,” co-starred with Wilton in “Shaun of the Dead,” and he stars in the new series “Roadies.” His father, Timothy Spall, played Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” films and has appeared in many other plays and films, including the upcoming “Denial.”

Rebecca Hall, who plays a lady in waiting, is also from a show business family. Her father, Peter Hall, is a distinguished director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her films include “Frost/Nixon,” “Iron Man 3,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

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Actors For Your Netflix Queue Where You’ve Seen Them Before
THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2017, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at Rogerebert.com, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

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