July 5, 2016
There are two kinds of film I watch to unwind and indulge in: horror/science fiction and children’s films. Every time I’m sick, I pull out the futon, gather my snacks and fluids, and watch all the Alien movies, in chronological order. If I need to just not think for a while and simply revel in sunny, happy stuff, I’ll turn to something like Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (not that I can stop myself from thinking about colonialism and all that, but still).
So you’ll understand why I slipped into a theatre recently to watch Steven Spielberg’s The BFG. Spielberg, despite all his earnestness in films like Schindler’s List, is not a filmmaker with much depth (Minority Report is an exception) but he can, on occasion, tell a good tale. And there was the promise of the inevitable special effects which were bound to be good, if not great.
And they are, as far as I can tell, for at least the hour or so I endured before finally walking out.
But here’s what grated on me from literally the first minute: That damn music.
You know the sort I mean. It’s the kind that shows up in the most generic of children’s films, a kind of skippy-dippy-doo music with a very particular and recognisable tempo. When I asked my Facebook crowd if there was a particular name for it, (something like, “Child’s Adagio,” perhaps), Steven Kowalchuk wryly responded, “I think the technical name for it is ‘asshole marketing music.’” 1
It fits. AMM, as I’ll call it from here onwards, is omnipresent in BFG, literally from the first minute. No, really, I mean, literally. It begins long before any discernible action that might justify its use, and that was the first sign that this was going to be a trying time.
I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book on which the movie is based so I wasn’t the kind of audience member who might perhaps be more forgiving. All I could see was a film trying very earnestly to be the kind that some reviewers love to see Spielberg create. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday is somewhat cautious in her praise (the film has garnered largely negative reviews) but still gushes that the director is in his “natural element of childlike enchantment.” It’s that “childlike enchantment” that has become a shopworn element in Spielberg’s work, and that damn trippy, skippy music by the ubiquitous and overplayed John Williams is an incessant accompaniment to a narrative that is equally clichéd.
It’s not just that the AMM is jarring and annoying, but that it declares to you from the start: Pay heed, little ones and the adults accompanying them, for we are off to a magical and splendid time, and to places full of wonder and enchantment.
Sung to the tune of La-di-da-da, la-di-da-da, la-di-da-dah!
The music’s annoying qualities match the story elements. There’s Sophie, the plucky little girl living in an orphanage. How do we know she’s plucky? Why, in the first ten minutes we see her shouting out “Oy!” to a few drunks carousing outside the window at night, and then something about calling the “coppers” on them. She’s so plucky and so fierce in her admonition that three grown, drunken men quickly rush away in fear. Did I mention that she is plucky?
Sophie is played by Ruby Barnhill, who is an actual English child. Only Spielberg could make an actual English child sound like an American trying to sound like an actual English child: It takes a kind of genius, that. She moves between being adequate to somewhat annoying but it’s hard to blame a 12-year-old for that when it’s clear the director has had a hand in moulding her performance.
The AMM wouldn’t stop and I finally resorted to inventing lyrics to it, in my head, of course, as the movie went on. As the BFG and Sophie embarked on their journey together and the AMM played loudly in the background, I sang to myself, “And now, look all of you, as I show you the Magic of Cinema: we’re off on a long adventure and along the way we will learn Great Truths About Each Other.”
To the tune of La-di-da-da, la-di-da-da, la-di-da-dah!
The BFG cost $140 million to make. That’s a lot of money for something that sounds and feels like the director — and the composer — just phoned it in. David Rylance is excellent, digitally enhanced features and all, getting the giant’s combination of wistfulness and sardonic humour just right. Despite his earnestness, the film is plodding and weary. Its technical aspects shine through, with excellent sound effects and gorgeous sets and scenery, whether real or digitally created.
Except that damn music. Did I mention that annoying music? I finally just walked out, deciding I had better things to do on a summer day than compose lyrics to AMM on a lovely summer day. The last — and first — time I ever walked out on a film? The 2004 Catwoman, starring Halle Berry.
1 On Facebook, Alex Wing shared this: “Having listened just now to some music from the film on YouTube, I'd say the Philip Glass effect. The skippetiness is incessant arpeggiation (outlining of chords by cycling through their component parts) and simple upwards or downwards scalar motion.” And Wes Lawson points to “Mickey Mousing” as an interesting component of the genre of music for children’s films.
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