I finally had time to catch up on some of last year's kids' titles. Whatever you want to say about the rest of the summer blockbusters, the major kids' films have maintained a pretty decent level of quality. It's just a shame that this hasn't been reflected by the box office.
So let's start with one of last year's major bombs, "The BFG," based on the children's book by Roald Dahl, directed by Stephen Spielberg, and crewed by all his regular collaborators. Disney handled distribution, a first for a Spielberg film. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that "The BFG" is is without question one of the weirdest, most idiosyncratic pieces of media to have come out of a major studio in some time. I liked it quite a bit, and I'm sure many children will too, but it's no surprise that the film has failed to connect with audiences in a busy summer season.
I know the original Roald Dahl book very well, and Melissa Mathison's scripts sticks very close to it. A little orphan girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is swept away on an adventure with the gentle Big Friendly Giant, or BFG, (Mark Rylance), who lives in the faraway Giant Country and spends much of his time collecting and distributing dreams. Sadly, all the other giants are not friendly. Instead, their brutish, human-eating louts lead by the vile Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement). They bully the BFG and threaten Sophie, until the pair hatch a plan to fight back, with the help of the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton).
I'd been looking forward to seeing Spielberg direct another children's film, but it's almost shocking how much of a throwback "The BFG" is, even with its heavy reliance on CGI effects. The pacing is downright leisurely, letting Sophie explore the BFG's giant home and the land of dreams for at least a full hour before anything resembling a crisis or end goal appears. Their are plenty of chase and action sequences, but the film largely relies on the charm of the interactions between a very large, eccentric giant, who speaks with a half-mangled vocabulary, and a very small girl with reputation for rule-breaking. As such, the film is very incidental, full of dream logic, and unfolds the way that you might expect from a small child relaying the story.
I found the film endlessly charming and inventive. The design and animation of the giants is a wonder, allowing the performances of Mark Rylance and Jermaine Clements to come through while still looking suitably otherworldly. There's a storybook loveliness to the production design, especially Dream Country, where dreams look like the glowing will-o-wisps, and can be bottled like fireflies. At every level, there's so much care and consideration put into every detail. It's one of the more absorbing fantasy films I've seen in a long time, simply because it gives the viewer the time to really take in all the gorgeous visuals.
At the same time, "The BFG" strikes me as being a film that will probably play best with smaller children. The few things that were changed from book to screen involve toning down the much nastier crimes of the bad giants, specifically eatng children. As good a job as Spielberg & Co. did bringing the BFG to life, the story is missing that gruesome edge that Roald Dahl always had, and the film adaptations of his works rarely address. "The BFG" is careful to emphasize wonder and silliness over creepiness and putridity. After the first ten minutes, the film is largely tension-free and will probably be a bore to viewers looking for more excitement.
Now on to "Finding Dory." First off, I have to confess that I'm not a big fan of "Finding Nemo," having enjoyed the animation, but none of the characters struck me as all that compelling or original. The one exception was Dory (Ellen Degeneres), a blue tang fish, whose short term memory loss and positive attitude made her so memorable. Putting Dory at the center of her own movie was a great decision, as well as having most of the story play out in a Marine Life Instittue, which looks an awful lot like the Monetery Bay Aquarium. This time out, Dory is searching for her parents (Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy), who she lost long ago and has only recently remembered.
I appreciate that with their latest round of sequels/prequels, PIXAR has taken pains to tell well-consisdered stories that highlight different characters and life lessons. So while "Monsters University" gave Mike Wazowski the spotlight and taught kids about accepting failure, "Finding Dory" uses Dory and her new friends as a stand-ins for people with disabilities, and shows us how they can triumph in spite of them. There was a bit of this in "Finding Nemo" with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and his damaged fin, but Dory faces a much tougher time coping because of her memory problems. From the very first scene, where a teeny young Dory's worried parents coach her on asking for help from strangers, the stakes feel more personal and the situation more poignant.
"Finding Dory" isn't a very subtle movie. Among the new characters are an octopus, Hank (Ed O'Neill), who is missing a leg and doesn't want to be released back into the wild, a nearsighted whale shark, Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), and a beluga named Bailey (Ty Burrell) with busted echolocation. As you might expect, they all end up working together to help Dory, and there's a lot of emphasis on focusing on what they can do instead of what they can't. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo are also along for the adventure, mostly to help fill time with their own subplot, and to act as Dory's cheerleaders. And it's all entertaining more or less, about as entertaining as the first film, though the writing is a bit sloppier and the situations more ridiculous.
I give the edge to "Finding Dory," though, because this one looks so gorgeous, with its kelp forests and picture perfect aquarium exhibits. There's a much bigger variety of marine life this time around, thanks to the Marine Life Institute, and we get to meet sea lions, otters, loons, and more. The best new character is undoubtedly Hank, the grumpy octopus, who sneaks all over the Institute, and can change color to blend in with his surroundings. He adds a lot of good humor and energy, though he is curiously underdeveloped for a PIXAR character. I wonder if they're saving his backstory for another sequel.
I wouldn't object, considering how well "Finding Dory" came out. Dory remains my favorite character of the series, who has smoothly transitioned from comic relief to plucky heroine. I have never seen a lead character like her in any children's film, someone with a mental disability who is portrayed in such realistic, empathetic terms, without being tagged as "special." And it's PIXAR's willingness to commit wholeheartedly to her story, and push at those boundaries, that keeps them a cut above the rest.