Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Melissa Mathison
Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall and Bill Hader
Steven Spielberg is a master at creating worlds we would want to live in (and some that we really would not…arrested for a crime we haven’t committed yet? No thanks.) from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to Jurassic Park (at least until the dinosaurs break out) and the wild adventures of Indiana Jones. Now, he seeks to go back to his kid-friendly, majestic, awe inspiring days with The BFG, based on Roald Dahl’s book and written by E.T. writer Melissa Mathison (who’s last screenplay this was before succumbing to cancer). The results are spotty if enjoyable, with a level of disconnect that is odd for a Spielberg film.
The story is simple: Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a young orphan with chronic insomnia. One night as she is skulking about the orphanage after everyone else is asleep, she spies a giant (later called BFG, Big Friendly Giant, voiced by Mark Rylance fresh off his prior collaboration with Spielberg, Bridge of Spies) who snatches her and takes her back to Giant Country as a precaution. He doesn’t want Sophie telling people about the giants. BFG is a vegetarian, but the other eight or so giants (a couple of whom are voiced by Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader) only eat ‘beans’, or human beings (the giants have an odd way of pronouncing things and speaking in general). Sophie is eventually discovered and then it’s a race to get the Queen of England (former Prime Minister Harriet Jones…I mean Penelope Wilton of Downton Abbey fame) and the British military to help stop the other giants from invading our land and eating us.
Mathison’s script is a little lacking in content, considering that she is also responsible for the screenplays to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. That doesn’t stop her from stretching it out to nearly 2 hours though. She does an excellent job in taking us to new places, like Giant Country and Dream Country, but leaves very little room for character as she takes us through the worlds. The story jumps right into Sophie meeting BFG without really spending any time showing us how miserable she is in the orphanage (full disclosure: I have not read the book) and how Oliver Twist her life could be and why she would be better off with BFG, despite his having other larger giants around that would love to eat her. What she does excellently is work in the giant’s phraseology seamlessly, without explanation (as Stanley Kubrick did with A Clockwork Orange), leaving the audience to decipher exactly what is being said. The story, though, seems a bit thin. We’re taken along on this whirlwind adventure, but it feels like butter scraped over too much bread, as Bilbo Baggins says in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Part of that thinness is due to Spielberg. I’ve always had the feeling that Spielberg on the set of a one of his less serious films is constantly going “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and then doing it because no one will tell him “No, Steven. That won’t work for the story.” He is one of the best storytellers working in film today, but sometimes his want to see something on screen gets the better of him and the story and film suffers as a result, as in The Lost World: Jurassic Park when he wanted to do King Kong with dinosaurs, so he tacked on an extra half hour at the end to do just that, making an already tedious film even more unrelenting because it just wouldn’t end. His direction here is as good as it ever is, but there’s an emotional disconnect that is very atypical of Spielberg. Things just roll along for the sake of plot with some beautiful imagery and stunning concepts along the way, but none of them build the emotional impact that even the least of his films tend to do (except Hook, that one is just awful, and Always, which is too emotional and borders on sappy).
That disconnect is also apparent in Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, another good movie that just rolls along. The thing the two have in common is the motion-capture animation. Motion-capture (or mo-cap as it is often referred to as) has produced some great characters, as in Andy Serkis’ performance of Gollum and Kong and also Lupita N’yongo’s Maz Kanta in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, but when it is used in an animation setting, like Monster House, The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, everything looks off and offers no emotion from the characters. I don’t know if Rylance did the mo-cap for The BFG of if someone else did, but his character, through all of is gentle smiles and general niceness, never fully connects as a living being the way the above mentioned characters do. There’s also the problem that Spielberg seems to have with working on a predominately green-screen set. He doesn’t have the touchstones of real objects and a real set for him to have his characters inhabit and it tends to leave the proceedings a little cold and sterile.
That being said, Spielberg does some amazing work visually, especially with Dream Country and the visual representation of the dreams. He and his team make sure to have BFG be a fluid and careful giant, in stark contrast to the larger, more bumbling and destructive giants that constantly pick on BFG just because he’s smaller. Everything looks great, it just doesn’t have a lived-in feeling that is crucial to fantasy films.
The major draw to The BFG is Rylance. His cadence and softness of voice are magical as he swirls around the giant-speak, making it all comprehensible while also making it sound fantastical. Here again, as in Bridge of Spies, his general demeanor is the centerpiece of the film. He interacts with Barnhill gently and patiently, yet sometimes a little sternly, as the parent she’s never had. Barnhill is game and approaches the role with exuberance and delight, and it is infectious and Wilton is thoroughly enjoyable as the Queen, as she typically is when she’s in anything.
The BFG will be remembered only as a minor work by Spielberg, not some grand triumph or eventually a classic, but it’s still enjoyable enough to sit with your kids and watch. It’s not something you or possibly your kids will clamber to see again and again, like with other Dahl adaptions Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox (though I’m not particularly partial to Willie Wonka) but it’s a nice little film that succeeds slightly more than it fails.