The BFG (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Melissa Mathison
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jemaine Clement & Penelope Wilton
Music: John Williams
Release Date: July 22nd 2016
Roald Dahl is one of the most celebrated children’s authors of all time and for good reason. His literature from “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, “The Witches”, “The BFG”, “Matilda”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and more capture the care-free, imaginative spirit of childhood but also have very dark edges to them. Whether it’s character deaths, tragic backstories or some of the most despicable villains that children’s fiction has to offer Roald Dahl’s works have aged incredibly well because not only do they deal with universal themes but because they hold up to further scrutiny when the original readers grow up.
If there’s one director who seemed tailor-made to capture this whimsical, if cynical view that Dahl spouts in his work it would be ‘Jaws‘, ‘Jurassic Park‘, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ and ‘War Horse‘ director Steven Spielberg who is tackling “The BFG”. This isn’t the first time we’ve had a movie adaptation as there was a TV-movie in 1989 where David Jason voiced the titular giant but this time we’re going live-action and big-budget with ‘Bridge of Spies‘ star Mark Rylance on board as well as this being the final screenplay from ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial‘ writer Melissa Mathison. Has this team of human beans captured the spirit of Dahl or is the whole enterprise just one big trogglehumper?
Sophie (Barnhill) is a young girl living in a London Orphanage. One night, when she’s the only person awake, she spots a 25-foot tall giant (Rylance) outside of her window. The giant, worried that Sophie will expose the existence of giants, whisks her away to “Giant Country” and reveals that he’s not going to eat her and that he’s actually a Big Friend Giant, or a BFG for short. But not all giants are as friendly as the BFG and in Giant Country there are a group of man-eaters who travel to the human world every night to eat children. It’s up the Sophie and the BFG to stop the giants before more children get taken away in the night.
If there’s one thing ‘The BFG‘ absolutely excels at it’s creating wholesome entertainment for the whole family. This is an adventure movie with breathtaking vistas, inventive set-pieces and a really charming bond at the centre of it. Sophie in this movie is a character who has leapt right out of the pages of the original novel and despite the book being written almost 35 years ago she does feel like an original character, at least in the realm of mainstream blockbuster movies. She’s a lonely bookworm, a slightly younger version of Matilda from the book “Matilda” except without the powers to flaunt her natural superiority over her authority figures. It’s one reason why the book has resonated so much over the decades; while The BFG may be bigger and stronger than her, Sophie is the one who manages to stay brave the whole way through. It also helps the movie that Ruby Barnhill is a real find talent-wise and Steven Spielberg has always had an eye for great, young acting talent.
And managed poorly, it would have been so easy for the relationship between Sophie and the BFG to come across as really unsettling or creepy but it never approaches that line thanks to a really witty screenplay that fizzes with charm throughout. Much of the dialogue comes straight from the source material with Roald Dahl’s colourful dialect for the BFG very much intact. And making this dialogue credible is Mark Rylance who is not under heavy make-up but is instead in a motion capture suit in one of the most astonishing and life-like blends ever seen on film (more on that later). Rylance, who gave a wonderfully understated performance last year in ‘Bridge of Spies‘, does a wonderful job in ‘The BFG‘ by depicting an inherently cartoony character with real warmth and charisma.
Honestly, it’s hard to see Mark Rylance in this role and not just because of the motion-capture work, but because…well, the BFG is on the screen. This isn’t an actor playing the BFG or just a special effect but a living, breathing character that is interacting with the world around him. Despite ‘The BFG‘ being an epic fantasy movie I never doubted the titular character’s existence.
The broad strokes of the story in this movie follow the book beat-for-beat and it holds up fine, but when it comes to issues it’s with the changes to the source material, both in terms of the narrative and the tone. While I won’t get into major spoilers, one addition to the source material is that the BFG implies that Sophie is not the first person that he has taken back to Giant Country. Not only does this raise a lot of questions that the original book never needed to, but it also takes away from the BFG’s natural likeability because if the first time ended so badly then why on earth did he do it again and why does he not already have safeguards with the benefit of hindsight? It also feels like this is a sub-plot in the movie that never sees a resolution.
But that’s a comparatively minor quibble when compared to the biggest issue with ‘The BFG‘. See, while the Spielberg that made ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial‘ or ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ sounds like the perfect director to tackle an edgy Roald Dahl adaptation, the Spielberg that made those movies is not the same Spielberg as he is today. He’s a lot softer and a lot more kid-friendly because since making those movies he’s experienced fatherhood to the max. I don’t mean any of this in a derogatory way, I must stress. People change day-to-day, let alone over the course of decades. But as a result ‘The BFG‘ while full of whimsy, adventure, charm and spectacle…is completely lacking in the edge that makes Roald Dahl’s material quintessentially Dahl.
One of the first indicators that this is a sanitised version of the book was when Sophie has her first encounter with the leader of the man-eating giants; Fleshlumpeater. In the book, Fleshlumpeater can smell Sophie in the BFG’s home so she hides inside a disgusting Snozzcumber fruit. Not knowing that she’s in there, the BFG convinces Fleshlumpeater to eat the fruit and the entire sequence plays out under the assumption that Fleshlumpeater ate Sophie until it’s revealed that she’s safe. In the movie, she quickly escapes and it’s mainly a “Ewwww, Sophie is cover in gross snozzcumber” scene as opposed to a moment of misdirection and real peril.
Despite Sophie being taken to a land where 90% of the population is 50 feet tall and wants to grind her bones to make their bread, there’s zero threat in ‘The BFG‘. There’s no sense that Sophie is in any danger, the one scare in the movie is relegated to a dream sequence, the man-eating giants are fart-joke comic relief and the stakes of the movie are really poorly defined, especially when compared to the book. The final act of the book revolves around Sophie and the BFG finding the Queen of England and convincing her to help them stop the man-eating giants who have been eating children in the night. In fact, the giants have been leaving the bones of the children they’ve eaten under their windows.
In the movie, it’s only ever indirectly implied that the giants are eating children. There’s no description of the murder-scene, there’s no sense of actual loss or stakes, it’s just offhandedly brushed aside and only feels like it was included in the movie to move the plot along. While the 3rd act should feel like a race to stop more children from getting eaten, instead we get a 10-15 minute sequence where the BFG, Sophie and the Queen eat breakfast at Buckingham Palace. Now, the book and the T.V. movie had this sequence as well but it wasn’t so elongated because time is still of the essence but here, as funny as it is, it feels the movie just stops entirely for it. The halt in the narrative is exacerbated by the fact that 10 minutes earlier we also had a story-stopping, contrived separation of Sophie and the BFG that was never in the original book. Having two story-stopping events back-to-back just kills the pacing of the 3rd act.
It’s not just the structure and the stakes that suffer because of this lack of edge, it’s the characters as well. One of the main arcs for The BFG as a character is learning to stand-up to the man-eating giants who frequently bully him because, even though he’s a giant, he’s only 1/3 of their size. But the main sequence of him being bullied by the bigger giants is not only completely played for laughs at the expense of the bullying giants but they don’t seem to inflict any real pain on the BFG at all, both physical or emotional. It plays it so subtly that when the BFG does get a moment where he stands up to the giants it doesn’t play nearly as effectively as it should.
Don’t get me wrong, ‘The BFG‘ is not a bad movie for lacking the darker themes and concepts present in the source material. But in an effort to play up the whimsical, charming aspects of the story Spielberg has sanded off all of the edge the book and presented a wholesome, utterly safe family movie that, while full of charm, laughs and spectacle, probably won’t resonate in the same way the book did. The whimsy is spectacular, the vistas are great and the scope of the film is beautiful but it just feels like fluff and…if there’s anything Dahl’s work wasn’t, it was fluff.
Technically though the movie really does impress with the London scenes having a timeless, cobbled-streets feeling and Giant-Country being a vast, grass-filled wasteland with wacky mountain formations and…random vehicles scattered around…how did they get there? Special effects wise, the effects are almost flawless with the sole weak-spot being the larger, man-eating giants who look like cartoon-characters next to the realistic landscapes and the photo-realistic BFG. We’ve seen motion-capture used to portray animals (‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes‘) or animated cartoon characters (in Spielberg’s own ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn‘) but with a character like this which is not-human but has most of the identifiable facial features we’re seeing a technological marvel here as Mark Rylance’s face disappears and we see the BFG.
Dream Country is a gorgeously designed feast for the eyes with an topsy-turvy portal which really allows Spielberg to play with the camera, his trademark long-shots are put to great use here, particularly in one sequence where Sophie evades capture from numerous giants in the BFG’s dream workshop and the interactions between the real Ruby Barnhill and a C.G.I. B.F.G. are flawless I.M.H.O. but I’ll G.O.M.A., F.E.A.R. and S.T.F.U. J.I.T. so I can act like B.A.U. Oh, and while this is far from John Williams’ best work on the music front, the score is still appropriately whimsical and memorable, particularly the score for the final moments of the film.
‘The BFG‘ is effective family-friendly fare that people of all ages can find enjoyment in…but that’s also part of the problem. Now there’s nothing wrong with sanitised, carefree entertainment but when you adapt Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” and remove all the edge until it’s nothing but a finely polished piece of fluff, you kinda dilute the very purpose of these darker stories that teach children valuable life lessons with real peril and threat that helps to attenuate the colourful language and the hopeful attitude. The effects and performances are stellar and it’s a fun ride but…with Steven Spielberg tackling Roald Dahl, I kinda hoped for more.
I give ‘The BFG‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 2nd Sep 16