Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Melissa Mathison (screenplay), Roald Dahl (book)
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader, Rafe Spall
Although Steven Spielberg’s name has been synonymous with family-friendly entertainment since the early ’80s, the truth is that he hasn’t directed very many movies for kids as of late. The Adventures of Tintin was his most recent PG movie, released five years ago, but prior to that it was probably Hook back in 1991. This is not necessarily a bad thing considering all of the other movies he has given us over the past few decades, but it does feel like a return to this kind of material is long overdue.
The BFG is a welcome return for another reason as well, which is that the script was written by his E.T. collaborator, the late Melissa Mathison. Add in the fact that it is based on a beloved book by Roald Dahl and it would seem safe to assume that this should be another instant Spielberg classic. But although this movie is an impressive technical achievement with some heartwarming performances, somehow it fails to recapture that sense of joy and wonder that we have come to expect from such a gifted filmmaker.
The story revolves around a ten-year-old girl named Sophie, who is terrified one night when a giant reaches through her bedroom window and snatches her from her bed. She soon discovers, however, that he is actually a kind and gentle soul who calls himself The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and that unlike his brethren he does not eat humans. Unfortunately, the more time she spends with The BFG, the more the other giants start to get suspicious, putting Sophie in danger and forcing her to recruit some outside help to vanquish the evil giants once and for all.
There have seemingly been more movies than ever released this year that feature live actors immersed in CG worlds, and while Spielberg has certainly never shied away from special effects, this is the first time he has directed a live-action / CG hybrid of this scale. The Adventures of Tintin used performance capture but the final product was 100% CG, and although he is once again reteaming with the talented folks at Weta Digital here, some of Spielberg’s trademark relatability is lost as a result. While I understand the need to make the giants CG, I do wish more of this movie felt real.
There is one memorable scene where The BFG brings Sophie to Dream Country, an upside down, underwater world where dreams float around like fireflies. While this is one instance where the abstract imagery lends itself perfectly to a CG environment, the visuals never feel truly inspired and in the end it just drags on far too long. Much of the movie follows a similarly sluggish pace and for long stretches there is simply nothing driving the plot forward (although I suppose this could be a criticism of the book just as much as the movie).
For the most part, the plot does feel fairly true to the book (from what I remember, anyway), but the tone of the movie is very different. As many people who grew up on Roald Dahl books can attest, his stories have a darkness to them and that is completely absent here. While it’s not surprising that we do not see the other giants eating children, they are toned down to the point where they are clumsy oafs that never feel like a threat. There is some humour here, thanks to a voice cast that includes Jermaine Clement and Bill Hader, but the movie is severely lacking any sort of edge.
This becomes especially apparent towards the end of the movie, where Roald Dahl’s quirkiness turns eye-rollingly corny. The BFG’s visit to Buckingham Palace becomes almost unbearable with its broad laughs and goofy winking at the audience, to the point where it’s almost hard to believe that this actually happens in the book. It all builds, of course, to the mother of all fart jokes, which Spielberg executes with unabashed gusto.
The highlight of the movie is the two lead performances by Mark Rylance and newcomer Ruby Barnhill. Spielberg previously worked with Rylance in Bridge of Spies where he portrayed a sympathetic Russian spy, and here that instant likeability works wonders for The BFG. His furrowed brow and facial expressions are preserved perfectly by the performance capture process and he expertly delivers the “squiggly” dialogue of the grammatically-challenged giant. His friendship with Barnhill’s character feels genuine in spite of all the artificiality surrounding them.
Comparisons to E.T. are inevitable because of Mathison’s involvement and indeed the symbiotic relationship between Sophie and The BFG is the heart and soul of the movie. I only wish there was something more magical and meaningful beneath it. The movie avoids the cliched moralizing of most kids movies, but it fails to present much of a takeaway at all. In the end, it is neither here nor there… a fairly inoffensive family film that will soon fade from our minds just like a dream from The BFG himself. — Sean