A film review by Craig J. Koban July 8, 2016


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


Considering 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. 

Perhaps 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. 



To 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. 

Now, 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. 

Spielberg, 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. 

For 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.   

Spielberg 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. 


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