‘The BFG’ was apparently a dream project for Steven Spielberg. The director nursed it along since the book was published in 1982, waiting for effects technology to catch up to one of Roald Dahl’s most playful fantasies.
It’s not entirely a coincidence that the book was published the same year that Spielberg made his childhood masterpiece ‘E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial’. The story shares the same sense of childish wonderment, and the script that Spielberg finally directed through motion capture technology was even adapted by his ‘E.T.’ cohort Melissa Mathison (who sadly passed away late last year). This is clearly a sentimental project for one of the most naturally gifted cinematic storytellers who ever lived, and the final product feels like a great director having a lark. Fair enough. At least we’re invited in on the fun.
Ruby Barnhill stars as Sophie, a young orphan girl with insomnia who’s snatched from her bed one night and carried off to a mysterious land full of giants with a taste for children. Fortunately, Stophie was kidnapped by the friendliest of giants (Mark Rylance). In fact, it’s built right into his name: The BFG. After a mildly awkward introduction/kidnapping, the girl and the giant hit it off big time. He shows her how he collects dreams and spreads them to the sleeping masses. She provides him with his only friend. You see, the BFG might seem large since he’s a giant, but he’s actually the smallest and gentlest of his kind. The evilest giant (Jemaine Clement) loves to bully the BFG and is determined to devour the kiddie he smells in the area. All of which leads Sophie to hatch a pretty insane plan to fight off the big baddies and give the BFG some peace. This plot involves the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), and it’s the weakest part of both the movie and the source novel.
From the opening frames, Spielberg is in full rousing fantasist mode and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch the master ply his craft. Every shot is designed for maximum impact, with the swelling sounds of John Williams’ music lifting every emotional beat to the rafters. The introduction to this magical world is classic Spielberg and delivers tingling magic through pure cinema. Image and sound swirl and swoon with excitement and wonderment.
Ruby Barnill carries the film admirably, showing that the great bearded one has lost none of his special skill with child actors. Yet the motion capture performance by Spielberg’s new muse Mark Rylance is the real showstopper. Somehow, Rylance’s most subtle facial movements come across through the animation and the BFG bursts with human expression and emotion while still resembling the iconic images from Dahl’s book. It’s a magical combination of actor and effects that would even make Andy Serkis jealous. For the first forty minutes or so, ‘The BFG’ is pure cinematic pleasure and it’s a delight to have Spielberg back at his most populist.
Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t quite last. When the evil giants are introduced, Jemaine Clement provides an amusing performance, but the level of threat never quite feels high enough. Part of this is due to the movie pulling away slightly from the darker child-eating aspects of Dahl’s book. Part of it is because Spielberg enjoys indulging in the Rube Goldbergian single-take animated action sequences that he toyed with in ‘Tintin’ a little too much. (They’re imaginatively mounted, but a little too long and indulgent to make the required impact.)
The magic of ‘The BFG’ is here in spades, but Dahl’s darkness is dulled ever so slightly to the film’s detriment. Then there’s the third act, an extended absurdist deus ex machina that was always the weakest part of the book and Spielberg plays it a little too faithfully. Granted, some spectacular CGI fart jokes are involved, but the final act feels anticlimactic and, even worse, dips into Spielberg’s weakness for overly broad comedy. Occasionally, the back half of ‘The BFG’ evokes memories of his flop ‘1941’, just with British accents.
Sadly, Steven Spielberg’s long awaited return to the summer blockbuster arena isn’t exactly his best entry in the style of filmmaking that he essentially created. Much like ‘The Adventures of Tintin’, the film proves that Spielberg still has a magic touch for pure entertainment and knows how to push digital technology beyond what audiences have seen before. However, his heart just isn’t as invested in that sort of storytelling in the way it once was. ‘The BFG’ evokes memories of ‘E.T.’, but doesn’t pack anywhere near the same visceral or emotional impact. Still, that’s not to say that it’s a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. B-level Spielberg still tops most populist directors on their A-game. It’s clear that that the director was having fun. It’s just a shame that he never considered it much more than a lark. I suppose that also makes it a faithful cinematic adaptation of ‘The BFG’, which was always Roald Dahl’s sweetest and most accessible fantasy, not his best.