Synopsis: A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.
Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Length: 117 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There’s something about a Steven Spielberg film that makes it instantly recognizable. I feel I could watch a film of his with or without a blindfold and know right away that the director of Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the captain of the cinematic ship. Lately, Spielberg has dug into more dramatic territory with the historical epics of War Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies with many of the muscles he used for his early flights of fancy going unstretched.
Long interested in bringing Roald Dahl’s 1982 book The BFG to the screen, Spielberg finally gathered the pieces together and I think that’s owed in no small part to the director finding a new leading man muse. After teaming with stage actor Mark Rylance on Bridge of Spies (which brought Rylance an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, surprisingly beating out odds-on favorite Sly Stallone in Creed), Spielberg has caught Rylance fever, casting the actor in The BFG and (as of now) his next two pictures.
In the not too distant past, a lonely orphan girl goes on the adventure of a lifetime one night when she’s plucked out of her bed by The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and brought to his home in Giant Country. Not really a prisoner but not quite allowed to leave, the headstrong Sophie clashes at first with her towering friend. As she comes to know him better she recognizes the loneliness of this outsider as reminiscent of her own life and sets about to help him out from under the thumb of nearby giant bullies. Pretty soon there’s a trip to Buckingham Palace and a finale involving the Royal National Guard, with Sophie and The BFG bonding over dreams, sadness, and wishes for the future.
All of this is right up Spielberg’s alley and reteaming with the late Melissa Mathison on her final script, Dahl’s world is recreated from the ground up in a faithful adaptation. While other Dahl works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches have had memorable their trips to the big screen, The BFG feels the most like it sprung from Dahl’s brain fully-formed. And that’s where there’s some trouble.
Dahl’s books are lovingly bonkers escapades with numerous tangential diversions along the way, almost feeling like curated episodes than one streamlined work. The BFG has several of these that don’t quite land the way I think Spielberg or Mathison (or Dahl for that matter) intended. Each moment of the film is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski (The Judge), gorgeously scored by John Williams (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and skillfully designed by Rick Carter (Jurassic Park) but the middle of the film seriously drags and it winds up a solid 20 minutes too long. Though the trip to meet the Queen (Penelope Wilton, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is a nice lark, it goes on for an eternity as Sophie and The BFG have a spot of tea with Her Royal Highness before an extended sequence of fart jokes.
The whole thing is perhaps too sophisticated for its target audience and likely should be marketed more to adults than young children who will tire quickly of the talky nature of the piece. When Spielberg does give us something substantive, such as a knockout sequence where Sophie and The BFG catch firefly-like dreams, it can feel too heavy-handed and repetitive.
I’m not sure if any other actors were considered for the titular role but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing it quite like Rylance has. While the performance may be motion-captured, Rylance brings a special magic to the part, uniting the actor with technology to fairly stunning results. Many have felt that motion-capture performances should be recognized by the Oscars and you can be sure Rylance’s work here will be cited as an example of why.
Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is a real find, believably navigating a range of emotions that suggests a promising career as she matures. Wilton is a hoot as the Queen while Jemaine Clement (Men in Black 3) voices The BFG’s tormentor with a nice mixture of weirdness and humor. I’m not quite sure what Rebecca Hall (Closed Circuit) and Rafe Spall (Prometheus) are doing here, with their characters feeling exceedingly extraneous to the proceedings. Hall and Spall (hey, that rhymes) are pleasant actors but they seem to know they’re little more than human-sized props.
Any chance for Spielberg to make us feel like a kid again is a worthy experience in my book. While not on par with the best of the director’s works from the past, The BFG is a reminder of how good a storyteller he is when working with material that’s personal for him. I just wish he hadn’t been quite so precious with Dahl’s source material, I think even Dahl would say there’s opportunity to trim it down without losing any heart.