by Philip Price
The latest from director Steven Spielberg is an odd little film. It is a project that seems all too good to be true. A feature length version of a classic Roald Dahl story, set to the music of John Williams, and directed by one of the greatest living filmmakers. What could possibly go wrong? The truth is, there isn't much wrong with “The BFG” if you're looking for a charming little think piece to show your children and teach them patience, but as far as the entertainment factor goes you might have the kiddos clawing at your feet five minutes in. Some children will no doubt find this story of a young girl who is kidnapped by an exceptionally nice giant and taken to his home in Giant Country to be completely mesmerizing and there are certainly plenty of reasons to be struck with this reaction, but as the film played out and as it became more and more apparent there was no driving narrative to the piece I became less enchanted with the product as a whole. More, the film is essentially Spielberg creating a handful of the type of drawn-out sequences he seems to have enjoyed crafting more and more in the latter part of his career. Extended scenes of discussions documented by richly creative camera movements with just as much inventiveness being poured into the setting and the performances. While such techniques give “The BFG” a sense of that Spielbergian touch that has been glimpsed in many a sequences in the auteur's other films there is nothing else to support such scenes here. On one hand, it is admirable that Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) have created a film that doesn't care to hue close to the typical conventions of a children's movie or most movies for that matter as much of the first hour of the film is focused on developing the relationship between the titular giant (Mark Rylance) and Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) as they come to figure out one another in ways that subtly explore their similarities and differences enough that we see how well different types of people, never mind different types of species, can complement each other. At two hours though, there simply isn't enough content to justify the running time. “The BFG” may have made a truly enchanting short, but as a feature film this feels more like an escape for a specific niche of an audience rather than the broadly appealing summer family film it has been positioned to be.
Taking place at some point during the ‘80s, we begin with a short introduction to 10-year old Sophie as she wanders the halls of her orphanage late at night while everyone else is asleep. With little to no context around our protagonist's situation or how she came to become an orphan we learn that Sophie suffers from insomnia, and yet as much as you can be one while still awake-Sophie is very much a dreamer. While many of the other girls who Sophie shares her orphanage with believe the witching hour to come at midnight or 1 a.m. Sophie believes it to be a little later, at 3 a.m., when she is the only one in the house left awake. It is on one of these endless nights, as Sophie shouts down at a few drunk louts leaving the local pub that she notices a giant hand reach around the building to pick up a trash can. Our reaction is the same as hers-what is it? What could it belong to? Given we know the title of the film we're watching we realize this must be the titular giant, but the way in which Spielberg slowly reveals the full appearance of the Big Friendly Giant (henceforth referred to as BFG) is near filmmaking perfection. After picking up Sophie simply for seeing him and out of fear she'll run tell the rest of the humans about their existence the BFG takes Sophie with him back to his home where the two develop a friendship. They come to learn things about one another; that they both like to wander around at night as well as that BFG performs the job of catching dreams which is conveyed visually as if you were catching lightning bugs in ajar on a hot summer evening. This is something akin to serendipity as this hobby and the fact Sophie likely avoids sleep to avoid dreams of what she might wish her life to be go hand in hand too perfectly. In coming face to face with a fantastical creature such as BFG, a creature who catches and constructs dreams, Sophie might at once be able to accept the power and magic of dreams while at the same time fulfilling her need for an emotional connection and caretaker in the giant. As our two main characters grow closer they also attract the unwanted attention of the less gentle and less charming giants that live with BFG. Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and a few others can't help but to sniff out the new human "bean" on the scene in hopes of securing a light snack-a predicament that prompts BFG to take some long-delayed action.
Though “The BFG” deals with giant beings and in larger than life visuals this is very much a small and rather contained story. With just under an hour to go the previously non-existent driving force of the film begins to take hold and we feel as if the film might finally make strides to give us something more in the way of story than simply the friendship that has been born out of this unusual meeting. The developing of the BFG and Sophie's friendship is all well and good and I in fact did appreciate the more tempered pacing to allow this connection to really sink in, but the lack of any overarching goal or intent really hinders the ability to remain interested. It doesn't help that when this second hour begins and the manufactured conflict with the other giants takes hold there is no real urgency to have this problem resolved. That the central conflict of the film feels like an issue BFG could deal with any day of the week depending on when he works up the courage to do so give the film little to no stakes. That said, the film does become more fun in its second half as Sophie concocts a plan to help BFG face his fears. In what could feel like too little too late “The BFG” somewhat redeems itself by taking its action to Buckingham Palace and to a Queen Elizabeth II (played brilliantly by Penelope Wilton) who has no trouble buying into the fact that giants exist and that it is her duty to help Sophie and BFG rid themselves of these man-eating giants. The film elicits this state of mind where you have to sit back and wonder if what we're seeing is actually happening, if this is where the movie is actually going, or if what we're seeing is somehow a dream BFG crafted and placed into Sophie's head so that she may never have to know the harsh realities of the world again. As this type of reveal never comes we are to assume we take “The BFG” at face value. Though the second half of the film certainly ups the momentum it can't help but feel like there was a large chunk of something missing by the time the credits begin to roll. It is more than apparent what Spielberg and his team were going for here and to a certain degree it's hard to argue they didn't achieve this parable of sorts on defying our circumstances to find our hearts desire, but that doesn't mean what they set out to achieve was guaranteed to be a masterpiece in the first place.
Even as I write this review now I'm still conflicted on how to feel about the film as it is clear at this stage in his career that Spielberg is making movies the way he wants to make them with no inhibition as to what critics of his over-sentimentality might think. This leaves little doubt that “The BFG” is very much the movie he wanted to make and there are certain sequences such as the one in which BFG escapes London and sprints across the continent, camouflaging himself along the way, which will serve as reassurance that Spielberg is not simply on autopilot. With this being his first out and out live action children's film since 1991's “Hook” there must have been something specific drawing him to this project. Though his résumé has been filled with more dramatic work as of late the man who shaped many a childhoods with the likes of ‘E.T.’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ films has clearly not lost his touch, but with “The BFG” it feels more like the director has created a love letter not necessarily to those movies from his past aimed at more adolescent audiences, but to the audiences themselves. The audiences those movies connected with. In this sense, “The BFG" is something of a metaphor for the filmmaker’s relationship to an audience he's been out of contact with for some time, but whom he hopes he can still connect with. As somewhat stated previously, the result feels mostly like a mixed bag.
The motion capture performance from Rylance is without a doubt the highlight of the film. His warm presence is felt immediately despite his sometimes plastic and grizzled appearance. Still, the Giant country scenes in which all of the giant characters are in play are insanely photo-realistic. Rylance enlightens the most academic of the giant clan with a vocabulary of mispronunciations and mashed-up words that only serve to make him more endearing. Gargling a drink that bubbles the opposite way of our sodas and thus forcing explosive green gas out your rear end Rylance seems to be having a blast as the title character. That he then serves it to The Queen and all of her subordinates (including Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall) in a running joke that really pays off only further defines this undeniably delightful presence further. His chemistry with the authentic and not at all garish performance of Barnhill shines through in both the emotional and physical dynamics between the two as well. Spielberg sets up some impressive logistical shots that allow for Sophie and BFG to interact seamlessly while also providing for some solid laughs in the more entertaining last act of the film, but no matter the events taking place on screen the question that remains throughout the entirety of “The BFG” is how well Spielberg has gauged the young audiences of today and how well he might still be able to enchant them. In truth, the jury may be out on this for some time as “The BFG,” while undoubtedly having its charms, seems a movie not able to be fully comprehended without time and space between the experience and the full impact.