[This review — this story — is dedicated to the good people of The Rabbit Room and Hutchmoot, whose love of good old-fashioned storytelling never ceases to inspire me. Rabbits, I’ll see you in October.]

Subaru headlights shot a spotlight into the dark, a beacon alive with pre-dawn bug clouds and winding ribbons of mist.

For Ken, these swarming constellations might as well have been fairytale sprites in flight; the tendrils of fog, the fingers of ghosts. Were he and his son being welcomed? Or were otherworldly forces massing to drive him away from some sacred ground in the deep forest? He wondered why his mind was meandering to such fantastical extremes.

Perhaps it was that he had risen so many hours before dawn for this impulsive escape eastward — from Seattle into the mountains. Or perhaps it was the movie that he had seen the night before.

After all, he could swear that he glimpsed giants looming in the dark as his car burned like a firefly through the forests of the Cascades.

forest road at night

He turned to watch the silver light flicker across the face of his 12-year-old in the passenger seat. Matthew looked much as he had during the movie — barely illuminated by a beam projected into the dark, eyes half-closed, baseball cap pulled down despondently, withdrawn.

This will be good for him, Ken thought. Matthew needs more nature. More time away from his devices. More silences. More physical activity. More real-world discovery.

He steered the station wagon around a bend, over bumps in the old forest road that set the fishing rods to rattling in the back, and past a sign that reassured him that he had not made a wrong turn: “Lake Moolock. Sounds like a vacation destination in Middle-Earth, huh?”

This will be good for me, he thought. I need all of those things too.

The metropolis was now just a memory of light in the car’s rearview mirror. He caught there a flash of anxiety in his eyes. Taking another bite of his oatmeal bar, he chewed on his worries quietly until he sensed his son glowering at him, as if he had deliberately planted these bumps in the road. “Thanks for getting up early with me.”

“Mmmph.” Matthew pulled the baseball cap brim even lower as if against bright sunlight.

“The light at this time of morning, coming over the Cascades and spilling down into these valleys — it’s unbelievable. We did this a couple of years ago, remember?”

“Can I sleep until we get there?”

“You’re not going to be much of a fisherman if you’re still waking up when it’s time to bait your line.” With a flip of his hand, he knocked the cap off of Matthew’s head and tousled his already tangled hair. “Drink some of that coffee. I brought enough to last us all day.”

“We’d better catch something. I’ll be mad if we don’t.”

“We’ll have a good time, whether we catch anything or not. Keep in mind — this isn’t all about catching something. If you reel in a big one, great. But there are so many reasons to go fishing.”

Matthew looked aside, perhaps to hide his disenchanted scowl.

I won’t let him get to me, Ken silently vowed. The boy is stressed out because he knows that I’m stressed out. But quitting my job isn’t the end of our lives — it’s the beginning of our new lives. We’re going to have healthier habits, bigger adventures. We’re going to make time to listen.

“So,” he said, “what’d you think of the movie last night?” He regretted this at once — not the question, but the forced So, chum, how was your day at school? tone of it.

Matthew shrugged. “It was fine, I guess. Kinda dumb.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Star Trek Beyond was lots more fun than BFG.”

Yes, but how much of Star Trek will you remember in five years? he wanted to say. He kept his mouth shut.

“It’s just… it seemed like… not very much happened.” The boy shoved his hand deep into the front pocket of his backback, then withdrew it and sighed. This would be the third time his hand had habitually fumbled for the phone and, according to the rules of the excursion, remembered that they had left their phones at home.

“Not very much happened? Really? First time I’ve heard that about a movie by Steven Spielberg.”

“Well, it’s just — there’s not much to it. There’s an orphan girl. And she can’t sleep.”

“Sophie. Right.”

Photo by Doane Gregory - © 2016 Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Photo by Doane Gregory – © 2016 Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“And there’s this big lonely giant.”

“Big Friendly Giant.”

“You know what I mean. And then there are these bully giants — who are just big jerks. Big idiots, really.”

“Child-eating idiots.”

“Right. And so I knew that Sophie and BFG would eventually have to fight the giants. But it takes so long to get to the big fight at the end. And when it happens, it just… it isn’t very exciting. The fight doesn’t last very long. It just kind of… ends.”

“So, you think the main point of The BFG is the big fight at the end?”

Matthew shrugged again. He was at a shrugging age. It was his monosyllabic reply to anything, as if any question pulled a string at the base of his neck. But then again, Ken admitted, he has grown up listening to me read my rough draft film assignments the morning before my deadline at the paper. Did I spoil moviegoing for him? Did I make it sound like work?

“Big fights,” said Ken. “Explosions. You wanted more of that? Because we could have gone to see that, you know. It describes most of what was playing in that big cineplex. But I don’t think fighting is really the focus of The BFG. I mean, it’s based on a picture book, right?”

“Yeah, I guess. For really little kids.”

“Okay, but you like other books by Roald Dahl. Like James and the Giant Peach. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Those have always been two of your favorites.”

“Well, they were. Back when I was a kid.”

Ken stifled the obvious reply. “Does that mean,” he said instead, “that those kinds of stories aren’t interesting to you anymore?”

“Look, you liked it. I get it.”

“I’m still thinking about it,” said Ken. “I’m trying to decide — did I like it better than Pete’s Dragon? You saw that with your friends, right?”

“It was pretty slow too. For a movie about a dragon.”

“Did The BFG remind you of any other movies?”

Matthew wrinkled his nose as if to stop a sneeze. “Music kinda sounded like Harry Potter.”

“Didn’t those late-night London streets feel like the opening to a Harry Potter movie? Felt like Spielberg was saying, ‘You know, I always wanted to direct a Harry Potter movie. If I had, it would have been just like this.’ I could imagine Hermione walking down the street. She stops, looks the giant directly in the eye, and says ‘I see you, you know. Nobody else does, but I do.’”

MV5BMjQxMjEyNzc2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzg2MTU1ODE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,938_AL_
© 2016 Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Matthew laughed at that. “Can we go to that Harry Potter land sometime? You know, the Disneyland version?”

“Sure. But I wouldn’t mind going to a BFG land either.”

“Yeah,” said Matthew. “That’d be cool. I’d like to visit his house. It was awesome. I’d like to have a waterfall inside my house.”

“You liked his waterfall, huh?”

“And a big rocking pirate ship for a bed.”

“Did you notice how everything in Giant Country seemed to move a bit slower than in the real world? Even the waterfall seemed like a dream.” He leaned over the gear shift and rasped, “Maybe it was all a dream.

There it was — a smile. “I guess it could have been. The giant makes dreams, after all. He made the Queen of England dream.”

“He sure did! He made her do other things too!”

Matthew was really laughing now, that whole-hearted, uninhibited laugh he hadn’t quite outgrown yet. He obviously had no trouble remembering the movie’s most elaborate and hilarious scene. Who would have thought that Mark Rylance — that great actor of stage and screen — would be instrumental in the most spectacular occasion of flatulence in the history of cinema?

MV5BMzA4YmVlYWQtZGRlMi00M2MxLTgwMDItYTFjMzQyMDdkZmFiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjk3NTUyOTc@._V1_
© 2016 Walt Disney Pictures

“I think a BFG world at Disneyland would be fantastic, Matt. That’s why I liked the movie so much. From the moment Sophie’s snatched from the orphanage and carried to Giant Country, the camera is looking around like a kid gone to Wonderland. It’s just full of curiosity — it never stops moving and discovering things, like secret rooms that are full of clues about who lived in them. Feels like a Terrence Malick film, like the camera is the eye of a roving spirit. Most movies wouldn’t take the time for exploring. Not anymore, anyway.”

“Are you going to write a review?”

Ken was quiet, navigating a series of turns, glancing nervously at the Deer Crossing signs. “Maybe. Maybe someday. It’s hard to want to write a review when you’re told that it’s more important to post your review on Facebook and count the ‘hits’ than it is to actually write the review.”

“Yeah,” said Matthew. He was trying to sound sympathetic, but Ken knew he was really just tired of the rants.

Still, he was on a roll. “It’s like what’s happening at your mom’s school. Those who work to market the school, they’re paid about fifty thousand a year — but teachers like your mom, who have been college instructors for almost 30 years… they’re paid, what? Eight thousand a year? That’s not even enough to pay rent for six months. How will schools keep good teachers if they pay them the same amount they’d make behind a fast food counter for the summer? Who will aspire to be a teacher if it means you need to work three jobs at once? It’s becoming a world of marketers, promoting schools and services — and movies — that are just cheap imitations of what they used to be. The real things, the good things, they get harder and harder to find.”

“I wish you would write a review. I like your reviews.”

Ken remained expressionless, but he felt a catch in his throat. If his son wanted to read something he’d written, maybe that was reason enough to write it.

“What would you write about The BFG?” Matthew asked, sounding like a therapist. “All that stuff you just said about exploring?”

How did this conversation turn in to a counseling session for me?

Ken pulled the car over into the dirt, opened the driver and passenger windows, and turned off the headlights.

A cool river of air washed through the car, and the weight of the woods’ deep silence wafted along in that current, heavy with pine and pollen and rich earth. They listened, sobered by a sort of holy hush. The forest stood all around them as if watching them, holding its breath, to see what he and Matthew had come to do. Ken leaned forward and looked skyward, then pointed. “Whoa,” said Matthew. The treetops framed a jagged image, like a broken mirror, and it was bright with stars.

2048px-Spruce-forest-night-sky-stars_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander

Eventually Ken whispered, “Remember when we watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind?”

“Yeah. Cool spaceships.”

“All of those colors pouring out of the night sky. The BFG reminds me of that. At one point, there were three sources of light onscreen at once — the BFG’s fire, one of his magical green bottles, and then the sunrise spilling in through a window. And I just wanted to bask in that light for a while.”

“So, he made Close Encounters?”

“And E.T. too! Both of those movies — same director. Same writer too — The BFG is dedicated to her. Did you notice? Melissa Matheson. She wrote The Black Stallion — the screenplay, anyway.”

“So, she wrote all of the BFG’s funny words?”

“Some of that’s from the book. But yeah, she wrote the script. The giants all talk like children who learned just enough English to get by, but decided they wanted to be as playful with words as with toys. I’ve read some reviews where the critics were just bothered by that. But I found it to be so constantly inventive. The script is as playful with language as it is with light.”

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© 2016 Walt Disney Pictures

Whizzpopper,” said Matthew. “Delumptious!

“I can’t remember what they were called, but I liked those nightmares, the ones that looked like spiders made of fire.”

“I remember ‘fizz-wizard,’ but I don’t know if I can remember the others,” said Matthew. “Guess we’ll have to see it again.”

Ken looked away to hide his smile. Victory.

The darkness was so complete, he couldn’t even see the car window frame. “See, I always associate the woods at night with Spielberg movies, you can almost see the search party out there, on a trail through the trees, looking for E.T. Or those kids on the bicycles — like the ones we saw in Stranger Things on Netflix. Spielberg created that world. His early films were so full of wonder and surprise and fun. You could tell that he loved those kinds of experiences — riding down a dark street on a bicycle with a bright headlight. He reminds you to look around, to sense possibility.”

“Sounds like you’re ready to write your review, Dad.”

Ken wanted to punch Matthew in the shoulder, but he didn’t want to risk making the boy feel like a kid again. “I think if I wrote a review, I’d write about how Spielberg has become America’s Solemn Historian, But those more recent movies — Amistad and Munich and Lincoln and Bridge of Spies — they feel so heavy with a sense of reverence and duty. But The BFG feels like it’s made by someone who has rediscovered the joy of reading fairy tales, and who has remembered what it’s like to go wandering for the sake of discovery.”

Amistad isn’t recent, Dad. Amistad opened before I was born.”

“Sorry. I guess when you get to be my age, you measure time differently. I think of Close Encounters and E.T. and Raiders as being made by quite a different artist than the guy who made Saving Private Ryan.

All of those were out before I was born.”

Okay, okay, I get it!” Ken started the car again — reluctantly — and the darkness seemed to shrink back in alarm. He pulled back onto the road.

“Still,” he said, but the noise of the road buried his voice, so he put the windows up. “Still, most summer movies focus on crisis and guns and explosions and ugliness. Just one fight after another, and then a big one at the end. The BFG — sure, it has bad guys. The evil giants just go around destroying things because they think it makes them look powerful. But who do you want to be at the end — someone who catches dreams and who can understand what trees say to each other?”

All the whisperings of the world,” said Matthew.

“Or do you want to be a big, ugly, red-haired bully who brags about ‘having no regrets’? Who does that remind you of?”

“Can we not talk about Donald Trump for one day?”

ugly giants
© 2016 Walt Disney Pictures

Ken was quiet, and he felt himself scowling. He had promised Matthew — and he had promised himself — that he would not talk about or even think about politics on this trip. “Fair enough. But, come on, Matt — did you like the BFG at all?”

“The movie or the character?”

“The giant.”

“I liked watching all of the ways the BFG could hide in the dark.” The boy sloshed coffee from the Thermos into the lid and slurped some. Ken saw him struggle to swallow the stuff without cringing. The boy was working so hard to behave like a grownup these days.

They got out of the car into a mist-shrouded parking lot, the faint hint of dawn drawing the world in the slightest of outlines. One solitary vehicle occupied this gravely lot — a black jeep with a Mountaineers sticker on the back window. A bespectacled man sitting on the back bumper waved at them and smiled beneath his white mustache as he shouldered his backpack.

“Speaking of Hogwarts,” Ken whispered, “doesn’t he look like a retired professor? Or a wizard?” He waved back and shouted, “Going to the lake?”

“Nope,” quipped the hiker. “I have a date with the peak of Moolock Mountain. It’s going to take several hours, and I’m already behind schedule. 13 miles, round trip!” He turned and gestured to the Douglas firs that loomed above them on the mountainside. “I need to spend some time with some old friends — Pseudotsuga menziesii.”

And then he was off, as if racing the clock, his stride practiced and his attention already focused on the disappearing towers of evergreen. He seemed entirely unselfconscious, ecstatic, and right where he belonged. And when he disappeared into the trees, he did so not by turning a corner, but by losing himself.

© 2016 Disney
© 2016 Walt Disney Pictures

Matthew, sitting on the truck’s back bumper, finished tying his hiking boots, slung his backpack over his shoulders, and picked up his water bottle with one hand and his fishing pole with the other. “Ready.”

They took the winding trail on level ground through ferns and trees, the trail leading as if it was designed by someone who had not yet quite decided on a destination. Mosquitos whined at their earlobes; gray jays screeched and paced them to see if they’d brought any food; and something seemed to stay ten paces ahead of them in the bushes, rustling wet leaves as it ran.

“Hear that?” Matthew whispered.

“What?”

They listened to the trees together. Ken so wanted to hear an owl. Or something, something to suggest the world of creatures that he knew were all around them in the dark.

“I can hear him breathing,” said Matthew.

“Who?”

“Elliott the Dragon!” he shouted.

They laughed. Good. That slow, childlike David Lowery film that Matthew’s friends had told him was stupid and boring… looks like it made an impression after all.

“Maybe it’s my age,” Ken said with a groan as he stretched and popped his back. “But more and more I like the movies that leave me with a sense that I’ll notice a lot more the second time. Most movies just make me feel like I’m in a fight that I’m constantly in danger of losing. And I don’t need that kind of stress. I endured enough of that at my job. Especially those last few weeks. It doesn’t matter how many journalism awards you’ve won, how loyal you’ve been to the paper, how creative you’ve been, or how much you love the work — you’re only valuable if you’re doing twenty things badly. You’re old-fashioned and unwanted if you’d rather invest in excellence and do a few things well.”

Stop it, he thought. Breathe. Breathe. Put their madness behind you. Become a human being again.

By Forest Wander from Cross Lanes, USA (Stars Reflecting Mountain Lake)

It was a dark blue now, not midnight black, but the stars were still visible through the streams of fog.

“Remember, it’s not a race to catch as many fish as possible. It’s about letting the light and the water and the birds untie the knots in your stomach. It’s about paying attention. So that you can really hear things. Really see things. Because what are you trying to make a living for if it means you don’t get to live?”

They walked on, the shadows sealing in the sound of their footsteps. They stopped only once on the walk to the lake — when an owl hooted from the boughs above. Ken felt a knot untie in his stomach. That’s one.

“Dad, that guy we saw? The one who was hiking up the mountain?”

“Yeah. You can tell he lives for this, right?”

“His face was kind of like the giant’s. Like somebody who lives in nature, you know?”

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“Yeah. That was the other thing — I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that loves its character’s face as much as The BFG loves Mark Rylance’s face. He was the most interesting sight in the whole movie. Yeah, I guess I see what you mean. That fellow had the look of somebody who’s kind of timeless and magical.”

“He’s like the mountain’s own BFG. Except, you know… normal sized.”

Ken smiled. The owl hooted again, and it struck him as a sound of deep conentment.

All the whisperings of the world,” said Matthew again.

And Ken’s heart nearly burst, for he knew in that moment that something in the film they had seen the night before had, against all the odds stacked by comic book conflicts, broken through and planted a seed of promising and playful new vocabulary in the heart of a growing boy.

Ooty_forest_in_fog

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to the Looking Closer Specialists, whose support for this website is helping me to keep it alive during a difficult season of unprecedented pressures and challenges. I believe in investing some imagination in my work, in the hopes that it offers readers something more than a standard film review. But that means I need to take my time with it. And that kind of investment is costly.

So, thank you, Specialists, for your support of this website, and for giving me the freedom to tell a story. I hope you enjoyed it.

Second Opinions

Here are a few words about The BFG from Looking Closer Specialist Damian Arlyn. I’m excerpting these, with permission, from a chat we had on Facebook:

It’s a real shame The BFG didn’t do better [at the box office].

I like how it took its time with the quieter moments. How it developed a believable world that gradually draws you into it and treats its fantastic goings-on not with a wink and a nod to the audience to show how “hip” and self-aware it is, but with verisimilitude and commitment.

It’s the kind of film where magic doesn’t need to have a hard and fast set of rules to follow in order to be “realistic,” but rather seems to operate with its own inherent logic and possesses a degree of mystery that helps it retain its sense of wonder.

I should probably add, in the interest of full disclosure, that it’s a little difficult for me to be “objective” about it, whatever that means, because Spielberg is my favorite filmmaker. I’ve seen every film he’s directed in the big screen for the past 25 years (since Hook). I never miss them. I admit that sometimes it feels more like a duty, but often (as in this case) it is a pleasure.

And I’ve never read the book The BFG.

Because after hearing Pete’s Dragon was excellent (which pleases me), I started to think that — The Secret Life of Pets notwithstanding — so far this has been a pretty good year for family films (The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, The BFG, The Little Prince, Pete’s Dragon, etc).

I’ve read some who have criticized The BFG for sidestepping some of the darker aspects of the risks in the Dahl story. A friend of mine who runs a great books school, for example, and Alissa Wilkinson said something along those lines in her review.

But I thought the film had the requisite amount of darkness and danger in it.

Again, I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much darker it is compared to the movie, but I found it’s general warmth, earnestness and optimism to be very refreshing.

Spielberg said when the film came out, “The worse the world gets, the more magic we have to believe in. Hope comes from Magic and I think that’s what movies can give people… Hope is everything to me.”

In an age where things look increasingly bleak and it feels like more and more people are embracing cynicism and nihilism, I find Spielberg’s sentiments encouraging.

I get that children’s films can (and maybe should) have darkness in them. Heck, I grew up in the 80’s where children’s movies had quite a bit of darkness and I loved them (still do), but I feel like darkness is the default position of so much entertainment now (family or otherwise), that kids need a little more light on the other side to balance it out.

Sometimes I think a lot of artists/filmmakers/storytellers out there now are more attracted to the darkness than to the light. Like it’s a sort of “how dark can we make this thing and still have it be okay?” Because at a certain point we have to admit to ourselves that there is something in us that is attracted to dark things… and not for good reasons.

I just would like to see more art feeding the “other wolf” (to borrow an analogy used in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (a movie I loved, by the way).

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