Movie Review: The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)
(Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor)
Probably along with Walt Disney, one of the names that was such a big influence on me growing up, has been Steven Spielberg.
Steven has often had a rather unconventional way of storytelling, dabbling in the visual and story aesthetics of his idol Alfred Hitchcock, while also seeming to embrace the new, and trying to go places that others dare not imagine.
The same could be said for author Roald Dahl, whose writings are often beloved by children, for their strange words, and even larger flights of fancy into strange realms and situations.
As his filmography has gotten more serious over the years, many hoped that Steven Spielberg could possibly return to the more adventurous, youthful spirit of the 70’s and 80’s.
In the last 15 years, we’ve gotten little glimpses of this with Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The Adventures of Tintin.
Though with The BFG, he regresses to a level we have only seen a few times in his career.
A young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) witnesses a giant (Mark Rylance) on the streets of London one evening. As she has seen him, he takes her away with him to Giant Country, to keep her from telling about him and his kind.
Though he is a Big Friendly Giant (whom Sophie calls, “BFG”), he is the nicest among a group of a more gruff and mean lot of them, led by a muscular brute named The Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement).
Sophie forms a friendship with the BFG, and as they learn more about each other, she wishes to help him out with his giant problem.
After watching The BFG, I couldn’t help but feel like the film was definitely playing against what has come to be known as “Family” films in this day and age.
The film does feel like it takes a step backwards for the Family audience, given that it feels stretched a bit thin in reaching its 2 hour run-time. While the kids might get antsy, I think some of the parents may appreciate a film that manages to take its time.
What may also shock some people, is just how ‘simple’ the story is. We don’t have super-elaborate backstories, and so much of what we see is often left to the audience to decipher. Plus, we are often finding ourselves trying to make sense out of the BFG’s language, in which he often mixes up how some words are pronounced (one of them will surely please Dahl’s older fans!).
Though the film isn’t without its little bits of Dahl cheekiness, notably in regards to the BFG’s favorite drink, frobscottle (I’m assuming a packed theater will illicit more laughter than the small crowd I saw it with, in regards to the drink).
Spielberg also seems to want to get in on the action, with some little bouts of slapstick and whatnot here-and-there. However, he almost gets a little too carried away in places, notable in a few scenes where the camera follows Sophie for several minutes, without cutting away to another scene.
While it has its little moments of strangeness here and there, it feels like screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T., The Black Stallion), chooses largely to focus on the relationship between the BFG and Sophie.
The BFG himself, is definitely a marvel of motion-capture, that shows how far WETA Digital (the guys who made Gollum and the Na’vi come to life) have come. He’s a bit more refined than the Quentin Blake drawings he’s based off of, but he’s given an almost grandfatherly look about him, as well as a more humble and noble nature, apart from his more brutish kinfolk. Rylance’s voice and mannerisms are also crucial in bringing the character to life, and given that Spielberg has cast him previously in Bridge of Spies (and his next film, Ready Player One), I could see him becoming a Spielberg ‘regular,’ in the same manner as Richard Dreyfuss.
Most notable about the design of the BFG, are his eyes. Eyes have usually been a hard thing to pin down with motion-capture work, and oftentimes, if the eyes seem ‘dead’ or not alive enough (like in The Polar Express), it can cause us to lose touch with the character. However, the added techniques that WETA have used with the BFG, helps sell the illusion so well, that I was really surprised how well my emotions were being toyed with!
Where the effects work gets questionable, is that many times, Sophie is one of the only live-action elements in a scene, almost making one wonder why Spielberg didn’t go full-CG/motion-capture like with Tintin.
Though in a sense, maybe he wanted to pay homage to those films he saw growing up, where you had normal-sized humans reacting to larger-than-life figures, like in the old Willis O’Brien, or Ray Harryhausen films. There were a few times, where the BFG and Sophie’s interactions, reminded me of a scene or two from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Ruby Barnhill does a decent job as Sophie, but it feels like they try a bit too hard to make her likable. Fortunately she never gets super-annoying, but there were a few times where it would have worked best if she was seen, and not heard. As well, there’s a constant on-and-off of her wearing glasses, which left me wondering why she couldn’t have just wore them throughout.
Though they figure into the plot, the additional giants of Giant Country are a little more exaggerated, and not as serious as the BFG. One almost expects them to really become a big nuisance, but at times, they almost seem a minor annoyance to the plot, given their size.
At times, the film almost seemed to hearken back to Hook, in its look being somewhat like a story come to life, but with a somewhat exaggerated look to London, and Giant Country (one also can’t help but wonder, as the camera pans across London, what a Spielberg-directed Harry Potter might have looked like).
Speaking of Hook, if you know your Spielberg filmography, don’t be surprised if some shots seem to tickle old memories in your head (I was even surprised to find one scene reminded me of one in Saving Private Ryan).
A few reviews I read even mentioned the works of Studio Ghibli as possible scenic inspiration, and there are times that one can definitely get such a vibe. Maybe it’s in how much of the film tends to take its time in certain scenes, almost inviting the viewer to stop and smell the roses, rather than throttle them onward like most American films nowadays.
When Spielberg first worked with writer Melissa Mathison in 1981 on E.T., he was still a young man, and unmarried. Now, 35 years later, he he has been a family man, and in the last 7 years, became a Grandfather.
One can’t help but feel The BFG may have been thought of as a gift to his grandchildren, and also a way for him to dig back into his past, looking for a bit of that storytelling magic that he put on a shelf, as he grew up in the last 20 years.
It also seems to bring his filmmaking about childhood full-circle in a way.
When he was working on E.T., he referred to it as “an old-fashioned Walt Disney story about an boy and his alien.” Now here it is, 2016, and with the same screenwriter, he’s made “a Walt Disney Pictures story about a girl and her giant.”
Final Grade for “The BFG”: B (Final Thoughts: Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison, dabble in Roald Dahl’s realms, and come forth with a Family film that manages to be whimsical, weird, and a bit unlike the conventional PG-fare. The BFG himself is a grandfatherly marvel from the effects wizards at WETA Digital, and actor Mark Rylance. Some in our ADD culture may grow bored at its pacing and focus mainly on The BFG and his friendship with Sophie, but if you have the patience and fortitude, it’s a pretty enjoyable ride. Though not a full return to the older days of Spielberg’s work, there’s a sense of wonder and old-school feelings, almost like putting on a well-worn pair of shoes)