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The BFG Review

July 1, 2016 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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The BFG Review  

Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Melissa Mathison; Based on the book by Roald Dahl
Runtime: 117 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Mark Rylance – The BFG
Ruby Barnhill – Sophie
Penelope Wilton – The Queen
Jemaine Clement – The Fleshlumpeater
Rebecca Hall – Mary
Rafe Spall – Mr. Tibbs
Bill Hader – The Bloodbottler
Michael David Adamthwaite – The Bonecruncher

On paper, one could look at The BFG almost like a return to form or throwback of sorts for filmmaker Steven Spielberg. The film comes from his iconic Amblin Entertainment banner. It features a script penned by the late Melissa Mathison, who was the writer for Spielberg’s all-time classic E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. But as much as one might want this to be some sort of glorious return to “classic” Spielberg, it’s not. The BFG is an innocuous, watchable family film at best, but it never achieves greater heights.

Based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, Spielberg tells the story of the young orphan Sophie (Barnhill), who is whisked away from the misery of her lonely orphanage by a mysterious, gigantic figure in the night. After unwittingly catching sight of a cloaked giant, she’s picked up and whisked away to a hidden land called Giant Country. The good news: She’s been taken by a vegetarian runt of a behemoth named The BFG or the Big Friendly Giant (Rylance). Unlike his bloodthirsty brethren who also inhabit Giant Country, BFG is a strict vegetarian. He has no interest in hunting and eating humans. He simply enjoys grabbing and organizing dreams from Giant Country and then promptly delivering dreams to the children and people of London. In the meantime, the nefarious, man-eating giants, such as Fleshlumpeater (Clement), whisk away unsuspecting children at night as their food source. Unfortunately BFG is constantly bullied by the other giants. He’s too weak and scared to stand up to them. However, with the newfound friendship BFG has formed with Sophie, she is determined to come up with a plan to stop the giants and help BFG.

The BFG is a fairly simple and straightforward story, and maybe that’s the problem. It seems too simple a story to support its own movie. Even Spielberg’s version comes off as relatively padded and prolonged at 117 minutes, when it plays like it could be about 15 minutes shorter.

Another considerable problem is Ruby Barnhill as the lead. In the past, Spielberg’s been very notable for drawing fantastic performances out of less experienced child actors. Barnhill’s performance achieves very mixed results. Sophie is an important character because she is a strong heroine, but Barnhill’s execution comes off as very stilted. As a result, her performance never comes off as completely convincing. It’s missing a natural quality that you see for the kids in an E.T., and even for the sometimes maligned Hook.

In her defense, Sophie often has to act against a CG creation in The BFG. Motion capture or not, there’s a definite magical quality that’s missing here. The other major mark against the movie is that the interaction between BFG and Sophie never quite plays as immersive and organic enough to become truly believable. It always looks like there’s some artificial trickery.

The technical CG and motion capture work with the giant characters is nothing to write home about. The giants are definitely detailed, but they never really leap off the screen, even with the 3D post-conversion. They are big, loud and rambunctious, but they are less than impressive as living, breathing characters. This is not the Tyrannosaurus Rex or Velociraptors of Jurassic Park. The giants share a greater resemblance to the CG additions to the 2002 special edition for E.T. Even the little spider robots of Minority Report were more likable and had more overall personality and believability than the giants here.

What seems to be missing from the film is a greater sense of whimsy and wonder. This is a story that should be rife with it, but Spielberg attempt to do so comes off as somewhat half-hearted. Spielberg was the man who said he didn’t want to direct a Harry Potter movie because he wanted to tell darker stories for a darker period of his career. When he returned to the Indiana Jones franchise with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, it came off as insincere. Spielberg seemed to have emotionally checked out of that style of filmmaking long ago.

Another problem is that Spielberg’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, was the wrong choice for this movie, just as he was for the last Indiana Jones story. Kaminski’s style and lighting never truly brings this world to life. The movie looks and feels drained of energy. The world of The BFG doesn’t feel whimsical, and it never really looks magical and whimsical either. There’s a certain drabness throughout the overall look. Maybe that would work for the scenes in the orphanage and the retro, old-fashioned looking version of London, but not for the latter half of the movie and the scenes in Giant Country and Dream Country. As a family film, it spends way too much time in the dark.

In defense of the movie, it is a very simple, digestible and straightforward story. Rylance’s charisma does come through as The BFG at times for some amusing dialogue exchanges. As a family film, The BFG works as acceptable, watchable entertainment. It’s messages and themes are strong. The way the narrative presents BFG’s character arc as a metaphor for bullying works very well and is quite relevant.

The film does pick up toward the third act when the BFG and Sophie decide to reveal themselves to the quite understanding Queen of England (Wilton). It leads up to a sequence that delivers one of the film’s biggest laughs. It will likely have most kids who see the movie on the floor, but it’s still a feature where such amusements are quite few and far between.

In defense of Spielberg, some of his old mastery does come through in creating some fun elaborate sequences and moments. Even if one argues that Spielberg is past his prime years as a director, he can still create some intriguing visual setups in his sleep — even if the stories and characters aren’t as compelling as ye olden fans.

The final score: review Average
The 411
The BFG is perfectly OK as a film families can take their kids to and watch together worry free. It's a classic story, but it's one that Spielberg never truly brings to life. The CG is never quite good enough, and the acting performances are never quite convincing enough. Much like with the fourth Indiana Jones movie, one wonders if Spielberg's heart and emotions were truly into bringing this story to life. With his talents, the movie is watchable. But once you are done, there isn't this sense of wonder and amazement that The BFG is something truly special that you can't wait to watch again. It's perfectly acceptable and innocuous family entertainment, but it's not much more than that.