Film Review – The BFG
This is a total guess, but something tells me that Steven Spielberg’s heart wasn’t into The BFG (2016). You would think that the material was tailor made for him. This is the director who has become synonymous with wonder and awe, telling stories with earnest sentimentality. I say that not as a knock against him, mind you. There are very few filmmakers skillful enough to do what he can, and even less that have enjoyed the kind of success he has.
But this is the not the same young man that made E.T. (1982) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg is in a different place in his career – his most recent efforts Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015) has shown a more methodical storyteller, one willing to slow things down and contemplate the ideas he’s working with. The BFG has him trying to capture the same old magic, adapting Roald Dahl’s book (with the late Melissa Mathison writing the screenplay) with a severe lack of enthusiasm. Spielberg is big enough to make any picture he wants, but here it seems he’s simply going through the motions.
That’s not to say this isn’t a technical marvel. Regardless of what you think of Spielberg as a filmmaker, there’s no denying that he has remained consistent as a craftsman. The special effects are first rate. The rendering of the Big Friendly Giant is incredibly impressive, and the motion capture work translates Mark Rylance’s performance very well. As the BFG sneaks through the streets of London, I enjoyed how he would use his cape as a means to disguise himself from being noticed by wandering pedestrians. The BFG’s home of Giant Country is beautiful and enchanting to look at. The most visually remarkable scene has the BFG bringing his little human friend Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) to the dream world, where they try to capture dreams in bottles. The dreams are depicted like sparkling fireflies, each one a different color to signify a specific kind of dream.
All this is wonderful on a surface level, but when we dig deeper is where the problems start to arise. A major issue is that there is no story. There’s no thread tying one sequence to another, each moment exists in a vacuum. Sophie is whisked away from her orphanage by the BFG, they go to Giant Country, wonder around a bit, meet other giants, capture some dreams, go back to London, etc. There’s no pressing need for them to do anything for the first two thirds of the runtime. After awhile we start wondering, “What’s the point?” Spielberg directs each sequence with little narrative flow. The pacing is lethargic, each scene lasts way longer than it needs to. When Sophie and the BFG meet with the Queen of the England, the scene lasts a disastrously long time, filled with sight gags and fart jokes that induce a mild chuckle at best. We never get a sense of the stakes. Sure, the other giants are assigned the task of being the villains, but their presence is never truly felt. The danger they pose is minimal, and they appear only as a narrative afterthought instead of a necessity.
The biggest disappointment is how Spielberg mishandles the tone and characterizations, which is strange because this is usually where his strength lies. Yes, he injects a ton of whimsy into every frame, but that’s all there is. Spielberg has always been good at playing around with tone – in one movie he’ll give us whimsy, hope, danger, sadness, tragedy, and even terror – as a means to give us an emotional roller coaster. That is missing here. Each scene is nothing but delightful wonder, so overdone that it becomes monotonous. That’s a bad sign, especially for a narrative that lacks dramatic tension.
Sophie and the BFG are not characters, they are archetypes. They are defined by one or two traits and nothing more. The BFG is exactly that: a Big Friendly Giant. There is no nuance to him. If it weren’t for his unique mishmash of the English language, the BFG would be unrecognizable as a defined character. Sophie is even worse. Here is a character that has grown up in an orphanage, who has surely seen many joys and tragedies in her young life, but there’s very little that makes her interesting. Sophie is precocious, and that’s it. She’s entirely unaffected by her position and the strange adventure she gets swept into. It can be argued that the premise (an old man kidnapping a young girl) is slightly disturbing. Yet Sophie carries along without a second thought to how bonkers it all is. After a slight hesitation, Sophie and the BFG become best friends, even though they know nothing about one another. After their adventure is over, they are the exact same – there’s no dramatic arc or growth to their personalities, they’re the same at the end as they were at the beginning.
It’s that lack of defined characterization that makes The BFG so disappointing. Spielberg has a great track record of characters that have shown a wide range of growth. Elliott fought off his feelings of loneliness and abandonment in E.T. Indiana Jones continuously learned about the values of friendship over the thrill of treasure hunting. Hell, even Robin Williams’ Peter Pan in Hook (1991) embraced his past and became a better father to his kids. So what in the gobblefunk happened here?