THE BFG ½
PG, 117 mins.
2016, PG, 117 mins.
Mark Rylance as The BFG / Ruby Barnhill as Sophie / Rebecca Hall as Mary / Bill Hader as Bloodbottler / Marilyn Norry as Matron / Jemaine Clement as Fleshlumpeater / Penelope Wilton as The Queen
Directed by Steven Spielberg / Written by Melissa Mathison, based on the children's book by Roald Dahl
the unqualified pedigree of talent married together and on display in THE
BFG, the film should have been an unqualified triumph.
It is, of course, based on the cherished 1982 children’s book of
the same name by Roald Dahl (whose other work has been made into some
truly memorable films like FANTASTIC MR.
FOX, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and THE WITCHES) and
was written and directed by Melissa Mathison and Steven Spielberg
respectively (the same tandem responsible for one of the greatest family
films of all-time in E.T. –
THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL). To
say that expectations going into THE BFG were through the proverbial roof
is the grandest of understatements.
holding this newest Dahl cinematic adaptation up to the iconic and
severely lofty standards of E.T. is an act of setting oneself up for
massive disappointment, but comparisons between THE BFG and that iconic
1982 film are unavoidable. What’s
ultimately disheartening, though, about THE BFG is not that it pales in
comparison to E.T. (most family entertainments over the last thirty-plus
years have in its wake), but rather that it’s arguably a surprisingly
weak appropriation of Dahl’s work when compared to other films that used
his material as inspiration. There's the utmost consummate filmmaking craft on display in THE BFG by
Spielberg, and reliably so, not to mention that the film greatly benefits
from two wonderful lead performances (one of which doesn’t take a human
form, per se). The central
weakness of this Spielberg outing is that…well…not much really happens
in it. It’s basically
plotless, and when the film finally manages to lumber towards a fairly
involving third act, it never builds towards a truly satisfying or
emotionally powerful payoff. That
dramatic buy-in for the audience is what’s sorely missing here.
be fair, the film does have a fairly sensational opening and carries a
uniquely gentle aura of mystery and fascination with it titular character
that keeps the enterprise relatively afloat.
Rather strangely, the film opens it what feels like Dickensian
London, only later to be revealed as modern day England (which does create a
peculiar off centered bookend for the narrative).
We meet a lonely girl named Sophie (a delightfully exuberant and
adorable Ruby Barnhill) that’s living in an orphanage, desperately
learning for some form of escape. On
one particular dark and ominous night she stares out of her window and
witnesses, to her astonishment, a giant (Mark Rylance, in motion capture
form) tip toeing through the London streets.
The giant quickly abducts the girl and promptly whisks her back to
his magical Land of Giants, fearing that she may tip off everyone around
her of his very existence.
despite the fact that the giant has indeed kidnapped Sophie without any say
from her whatsoever, he does appear largely quiet spoken and soft
tempered...he's a very congenial fella, at least as far as beings the size of
buildings go. Slowly, but surely, Sophie learns more of her new and
substantially larger new pal (which she names “BFG,” or Big Friendly
Giant), like the fact that he just might be one of the kindest and least
threatening individuals amidst his species.
There are many other giants that roam this mystical realm, like
Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) and Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) that not only
tower over the already large BFG, but also really like to eat humans
(which they call "human beans"). Sophie
wishes to stay with the BFG, seeing as she really has nothing to go back
to in London, but since his enemies would love to make her a quick midday
snack, the BFG feels that it’s wise to keep her as far away from danger
as possible. Sophie, being
endlessly spunky and fairly quick witted, devises a plan to take care of
the evil giants, which involves some much needed help from some very well
politically established people back in London.
if anything, is a masterful technical director, and THE BFG bares his
aesthetic fingerprints throughout. The
opening moments of the film – featuring the BFG nimbly sneaking in and
out of the nocturnal London streets – using the darkness and some
ingenious camouflage trickery that employs buildings, lampposts, and other
structures – revels in the type of classical and mischievous visual
magic that Spielberg has become legendary for.
The giant himself is a meticulously rendered creature, made wholly
out of CGI and, of course, Rylance’s physical and vocal performance
nuances via motion capture. There
is no doubt that the BFG is a spectacular marvel of computer rendered
make-believe, especially in the avenue of capturing all of the subtle and
idiosyncratic facial quirks that makes the giant relatively inviting and
endearing. There’s also an
extraordinary attention to environmental detail in THE BFG as well, as the
giant’s realm – even when entirely conceived with pixelized
effects – is show-stoppingly immersive on a level of world building.
The film is lush, vibrant, and simply beautiful to engage in.
as remarkable as this film’s production design is, THE BFG remains
somewhat dramatically inert. So
much of the giant and his world are artificially generated that a majority
of the film feels obtrusively sterile and clinical, which is something
that most Spielberg films avoid. Yes,
the motion capture methods employed here are thanklessly miraculous, but
the BFG as a character overall lacks an invitingly tactile realty that
allows for our investment in the central relationship between Sophie and
him. Rylance is a performance dynamo here, hot off of his well
deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for Spielberg’s BRIDGE
OF SPIES, and he embodies his lanky, awkward, and tender behemoth
with a real flesh and blood soul that that the visual effects kind of fail to
communicate (he also has a wickedly droll vocal strangeness, spouting out
nonsensical words and phrases that begin to have a lyrical charm as the
film progresses). But the BFG
rarely feels…real. We
fell big time for E.T. and Elliot back in the day because the alien was a
tangible and painstakingly animated puppet on set that the young actor
could play off of and plausibly engage with. The BFG, by direct comparison, is a character that invites
our admiration as a superlative technical creation, to be sure, but we’re
so consciously aware of the fact that he’s the product of cutting edge
visual effects that it robs him of his ethereal verisimilitude.
remains one of the greatest directors of children and he really generates
a thanklessly good performance out of newcomer Barhill, who imbues THE BFG
with some much needed warmth and humanity, especially considering that
she’s frequently the only human entity in the film.
Her plucky affability and infectious spirit grounds the film in
ways that a lesser child performer would have failed to muster.
Unfortunately, Mathison’s posthumous (she passed away last year)
script doesn’t do Sophie much favors; she’s a peculiar enigma in her
own story. We learn next to nothing about her before she’s quickly
yanked out of her normal surroundings and by the time the film reaches a would-be
rousing climax and ending…we really learn nothing new about her when the
end credits roll by. THE BFG
is typified by very little, if any, storytelling momentum involving its
two likeable characters. It
takes what seems like forever before the film culminates with a
fascinating meeting between Sophie, the giant, and some high ranking
Londoners, which gives the plot a desperately required dash of
unpredictable intrigue. The film’s resolution, alas, never satisfactorily culminates with
any sizeable impact.
Maybe THE BFG is frankly too familiar to the E.T. formula (an unlikely friendship forged that later struggles for acceptance by the larger world around the players involved) for its own good, especially considering the people behind the scenes. THE BFG contains potent imagery, engaging performances, and is a refreshingly sweet, good-natured, and cynicism-free family fantasy (which is hard to pull off these days). Mournfully, though, the quintessential Spielbergian magic of old seems vacant here and I found myself – more often than not – trying to convince myself to care about THE BFG’s characters and their plight. A Spielberg film – regardless of genre – still remains an event film and he’s one of the very few active directors that’s arguably just as big of a draw and those who star in his work. THE BFG, for all of its good intentions and impeccable and jaw dropping craftsmanship, feels cold and distancing. Spielberg’s latter career has been categorized by modest hit-or-miss efforts; this is one of the misses.