Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The recent failure of Steven Spielberg’s ode to childlike wonder at the box office speaks more to our current zeitgeist than anything in his wonderful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1982 book of the same name, The BFG. For here's a project tailor-made for one of cinema’s reigning kings of imagination and escapism; a story about a child encountering an otherworldy friend while dealing with a broken home life, and the magical power dreams can have in coping with life’s many hardships. Many have already made the correlation between the Dream Factory and Spielberg himself; a filmmaker obsessed with creating stories which enchant children and then linger long into adulthood. Although he’s dabbled in dark subject, for most people of a certain age, he will intrinsically be linked with childhood nostalgia; i.e. Indiana Jones, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Time being a small sample of the impact he’s had on shaping populist entertainment that still manages to retain artistic merit.
So why, then, hasn’t The BFG connected with audiences? Some might point to the fact that Dahl’s book is fairly light on actual plot, and that a movie should have forward momentum and a sense of urgency. The fact that this is a picture aimed at children also poses a problem for an old fashioned visual stylist such as Spielberg, who refuses to churn out the kind of frantically edited, pop-culture specific dross infecting the vast majority of wide-release kids movies these days. Unlike something like The Lego Movie, which moves like a coked up Wallstreet tycoon playing with his childhood toys, The BFG maintains the leisurely pace of a bedtime story which slowly reveals itself over the course of an evening. Instead of using an old school approach to this material, however, Spielberg continues to embrace state of the art digital effects in order to push ahead rather than retreat into the realm of nostalgia. By placing such a simplistic tale at the mercy of performance-capture technology, Spielberg cannily melds the old and new into one unifying vision.
The real reason behind the film’s failure to catch on, though, may have more to do with its refusal to follow the dictates of studio-made family entertainment. This is not a movie which appeals to adults because it makes winking observations which will go over the kid’s heads, nor does it dumb itself down in order to capture the haphazard attention spans of younger viewers. Instead, as written by the late Melissa Mathinson (who also penned E.T.), The BFG attempts to straddle a middle ground of appealing to the notion of imagination (or in this case, dreams) as a coping mechanism for loneliness, while also enchanting audiences through lively set-pieces and off-beat humor. Truthfully, Spielberg and Mathinson do sand off the darker edges of Dahl’s voice here; relegating the more macabre elements of the story to the sidelines so that they can focus on the importance of friendship. This is unfortunate, but seems in keeping with that sense of Spielbergian awe which the film sometimes clumsily, at other times sublimely, tries to conjure.
The minimal plot revolves around 11-year-old Sophie (pluckish newcomer Ruby Barnhill), stuck inside a London orphanage who one night spots the titular big friendly giant romping about the moonlit streets. Before she knows it, a massive hand reaches inside her room, bathed in those shards of light Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is so fond of, and snatches her up. And so the movie goes; romping off across the English countryside en route to Giant Country, charting the relationship that forms between a lonely young girl and an imposingly gentle giant. The film’s greatest asset in this regard is the motion-captured performance of Mark Rylance, whose subdued work in Spielberg’s last picture Bridge of Spies earned him an Oscar. Here, he not only gets the wonky physical aspects of the character down; from his hunched walk to the way he uses his unwieldy height for comic possibilities, but also with more nuanced facial expressions and gestures. Despite the uncanny valley nature of the technology at work, Rylance manages to convince us that there’s an actual personality there, made all the more amusing by the fact that he nails the particulars of Dahl’s nonsensical dialogue; with references to whizzpoppers, crockadowndillies, piggy-wiggies, schnozzles, and best of all, “giants zippfizzing off to other countries to guzzle human beans.” Though the deranged humor which gave Dahl’s prose their punchy charm is largely absent (perhaps due to the film’s friendly PG-rating), Spielberg’s adaptation nonetheless retains a certain disregard for standard narrative conflicts and pacing.
And perhaps it’s the absence of this kind of whiz-bang momentum children’s films usually traffic in; (even Spielberg’s own The Adventures of Tintin had more amped-up energy) which will ultimately will lose adults claiming “nothing happens” while boring children less accustomed to the droll atmosphere. A shame, really, since there are moments; particularly a gorgeous sequence set inside the upside down “dream world” and a late set-piece involving the Queen and a royal meal which plays like something out of silent era slapstick comedy, where Spielberg is at the top of his game. Though it ultimately suffers from being overall at 117 minutes (a symptom of most Spielberg films), and has a fairly plotless narrative structure which makes it feel a bit longer than it should, The BFG is still the work of great artistry and heartfelt emotion. While it fails to reach the weepy heights of it’s most obvious influences, the sentimental manipulations are more muted here, giving way to whimsy and fart jokes amidst the heart-tugging bond between a precocious orphan and gibberish-spewing giant; all set to the swell of John Williams’ strident score.