The BFG (2016) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jemaine Clement, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Cameo: Matt Frewer
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison (based on the book by Roald Dahl)
Review published July 1, 2016
Set in London, a clever but unhappy, insomnia-afflicted orphan named Sophie (Barnhill, "4 O'Clock Club") wakes up in the middle of the evening and sees something outside the orphanage window. Investigating, she discovers a giant man (Rylance, The Gunman) skulking around in the neighborhood outside, causing her to go into a panic. He grabs her and steals her away to protect his further discovery from others, taking the girl to his home in a nearby realm, Giant Country, an uncharted land mostly undiscovered by humans. Soon Sophie discovers the giant to be a much more gentle being than his size and demeanor would initially lend you to believe, especially compared to the nine much larger, bullying brutes that also inhabit the lands, who live to feast on "beans" (human beings), unlike her vegetarian protector. She dubs him, "BFG" ("Big Friendly Giant"), learning all about this curious realm and his eccentric ways, which includes his amazing ability to capture and control dreams, which he uses to try to bring joy to the children of the human town Sophie hails from.
Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln, War Horse) hooks up with his Bridge of Spies Oscar-winning supporting actor Mark Rylance, as well as the late Melissa Mathison (Kundun, The Indian in the Cupboard), who wrote Spielberg's similarly themed beloved child adventure E.T., for an adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl children's book of the same name. While other adaptations celebrate the surreal nature of his stories, and accentuate much of the dark humor, Spielberg chooses to concentrate more on the undercurrent of sentimentality, conforming it to his own sense of childlike wonder and discovery, as well as finding bonds of friendship in unlikely places. As such, it's a film as sweet and friendly as the character alluded to in the title, more in keeping with the Disney name, but a little more darkness in its conflicts could have made the lightness and mirth shine much brighter.
The BFG benefits from strong character performances, with an especially endearing take by Rylance as the titular giant (who looks to me like the offspring of Liam Neeson and "Seinfeld"'s Kramer), whose subtle facial expressions are still perfectly captured, despite a great deal of CG work done to create the look and size of his character (all the giants are brought to life through performance capture technology that subtly stutters from over-processing). Rylance is playing him not only for the comedy of his multitudinous malapropisms, but also a sense of sadness and loneliness, an introverted "runt" of a giant unable to conform to the brutish ways of his brethren, but also unable to make the friends he wants with the human children he encounters because their lives are instantly in danger.
Ruby Barnhill, as the film's most prominent live-action actor, is also quite well cast as the precocious Sophie, a spirited and brave young girl who doesn't conform to the stereotypes of her gender, becoming Spielberg's first female main protagonist (the film's assertions of women as strong and independent leaders culminates in a climax involving the Queen of England (Wilton, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who somehow has autocratic powers, despite being set in the 1980s (assuming the "Ron" and "Nancy" she speaks to on the phone are the Reagans, the presidential couple in the White House in 1982, when Dahl's book was first published). The overt masculinity of the barbarous, carniverous giants is seen as destructive compared to the BFG's vegetarian poet with a love and curiosity for all forms of life (the only thing he butchers besides 'snozzcumbers' is the English language), suggesting that living in harmony and tranquility are things we should admire, rather than violence and destruction. Indeed, the other giants don't bother to learn how to do basic things like cook or even build a home, hunting for their next meal and sleeping out in open fields.
The BFG is a tale of halves, with the first half of the film setting up the relationship between the young girl and the awkward giant, and the second half putting them on their first big adventure together, where they seek help in the human world to rectify the one set in the BFG's land. As Spielberg has chose to tell his tale in a decidedly leisurely, less dramatic fashion, the pace is slow (some might even say sluggish), but it does begin to coalesce a bit once Sophie and BFG decide to take charge of their dangerous predicament and come up with solutions through their own ingenuity.
Unfortunately, some viewers, particularly young ones who find it challenging to pay attention to even fast-paced children's fare, may have checked out of the film by the midway point, save for a couple of scenes in which flatulence plays a part. The threat of the film, in which Sophie could be eaten alive by any one of the thuggish giants, is understated, so it will likely not be very scary for children, who likely won't perceive that this is a story that will go there. Again, Spielberg would rather explore poignant moments such as BFG's previous history in not being able to protect his human friends from harm, rather than emphasize how horrible that harm might be if it ever comes to realization. Even nightmares the nature of nightmares are kept safe away from Sophie's dreamscape by BFG -- scary thoughts and realities abound, but they're always off in the distance to the core of Spielberg's story built on providing a safe and comfortable place for children.
While I'm not a proponent of 3D screenings of films, I will say that the 2D version of the film is a bit challenging to determine the size of objects on the screen the way that it is shot. As the camera moves, it is only when one of the characters picks up an item when we can tell if it is something meant for humans, for BFG or one of the larger giants. I can't vouch for how well this is handled in three dimensions, but I'm guessing it will help these scope issues, especially during sequences in which Sophie must find places to hide from the hungry giant bullies who smell her delicious scent in the air.
The BFG is a rarity in this age of frenetic, neon-colored kids films with oodles of salty rudeness and pop culture references galore. It's a film not unlike its giant protagonist: pensive, kind-hearted, occasionally insightful, and easy to misinterpret except by those with the patience and perceptiveness to relate to it. As such, it will likely miss the broader audiences of those looking for a fun, all-ages adventure before finally finding a more warm reception among those who can slow down their attentive pace to take in the subtler details of the story and characterizations.
©2016 Vince Leo