Try as I might, I could not wrap my heart around director Steven Spielberg’s latest, THE BFG, based on the Roald Dahl book and the final screenplay from Spielberg’s E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL writer Melissa Mathison, who died in November. I couldn’t get past the nagging feeling that what was meant to pass as charming and wondrous comes across as precious in the most aggravating and very British way.
When it comes to children’s stories, I’ve never subscribed to the school of thought that a series of funny names and a vague, ever-changing set of rules and mythologies was all that captivating as entertainment. Whether this is a flaw in the script or the source material, I don’t know, having never read the book. But I’m not reviewing a book; I’m talking strictly about a movie that, sadly, doesn’t work as a whole. And any film is an independent work of art, separate from its source material.
THE BFG (short for Big Friendly Giant) is the story of 10-year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan girl who tends to stay up late and wander the grounds in and around the orphanage while the other children sleep. By being an observer of all things dwelling in the night, it doesn’t take long for Sophie to spot a 24-foot giant stealthily moving through the streets in the dark.
Recent Oscar winner (for Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES) Mark Rylance is actually quite endearing as BFG, apparently the only non-child-eating giant in the land of giants where he lives. He brings Sophie to his home (where she is in an incredible amount of danger) to show her what he does all day—he collects and implants all manner of dreams into the heads of people. Dreams in this film are not unlike the memory balls in INSIDE OUT, only instead of collecting them after they happen, BFG gathers them from a land where dreams float in the air and places them into your head while you sleep.
We also meet several other giants who are far larger and more dangerous than BFG, but the only one who really stood out to me was the leader, Fleshlumpeater (voiced by Jemaine Clement), a particularly nasty character who is certain BFG is hiding a human in his home and nearly destroys his entire workshop to find her. I’m fairly certain I spotted Bill Hader’s voice in the giant mix, but I couldn’t tell you who he played without looking it up.
When the film feels dangerous is when it functions the best, and there’s certainly more of that in the second half, when Sophie takes BFG to London (circa the early 1980s) to meet with Queen Elizabeth (Penelope Wilton) to warn her of the threat of the bad giants and send troops to destroy them. Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall play attendants of the Queen who also make certain that BFG and Sophie are fed and taken care of while visiting Buckingham Palace. If it sounds odd, it really is, but some of these scenes are actually quite funny, especially the sequence involving BFG’s breakfast feeding. There’s also a special drink that he loves that everyone decides to try, and it leads to a symphony of farting that is pretty special.
As mentioned, there is something in Rylance’s motion-capture performance (that leaves his face relatively intact except for enlarged ears) that is truly special and sweet. His broken and misspoken English made me laugh for a time, but once you more or less figure out what he’s trying to say, it loses its appeal. But there is a hint of sadness behind his eyes, perhaps because he is forced to live among these other, far more brutish giants, and he knows there’s a better world and class of people out there.
In the end, it boils down to the simple truth that I was never swept away by THE BFG, despite Spielberg turning on the awe-factor afterburners to make it happen. The John Williams score swoops and swells, and it feels like everyone is overselling the magic. My biggest issues with the film center around Barnhill (in her first film role), who spends most of the film with her arms slightly outstretched at a 45-degree angle, twirling about, doing the very things BFG and others tell her not to do.
I can only take precocious children in small doses, and after a point, her behavior becomes predictable and only serves to move the story forward rather than explore the character’s inner world. The BFG isn’t even a close call in my mind; except for Rylance, there’s little to recommend from the clumsy action sequences to the shockingly subpar special effects. It’s one of Spielberg’s true letdowns.