All Flash and No Substance
By: Anthony Zangrillo
BFG is big and giant, but is by no means viewer friendly. This is the best line to describe the unfortunate misstep in prolific director Steven Spielberg’s body of work. For the majority of its run-time, BFG is boring and devoid of any hope of suspense or intrigue. While the movie’s visuals are superb and even showcases innovative, larger than life perspectives, the true heart of the classic Road Dahl’s stories will be lost on most viewers. Somewhere within the film, the Queen becomes a prominent player and campiness thankfully takes over the film. Transitioning into a less than serious affair helps audiences recover from their mid-movie slumber, but BFG’s gratuitous run-time and perplexing tone will severely curb most viewer’s experiences.
In The BFG, an elderly giant (Mark Rylance) kidnaps the orphan Sophie (Rudy Barnhill) and brings her to Giant Country, after Sophie sees the giant roaming the streets outside her window. Following a period of friendly teasing, Sophie befriends the giant and names him the “Big Friendly Giant” (BFG). BFG is an outcast among the other giants, who are evil, man-eating beasts malevolently intent on invading the human world and kidnapping children. It is up to Sophie and BFG to concoct a plan that will rid the world of these terrorizing giants, while enabling BFG to live in solemn peace.
Mark Rylance does everything he possibly can with this odd role. Technology enables Rylance’s performance to shine through the CGI production of BFG. However, BFG’s nonsensical language does not work well in a film adaptation. This is a difficult realization as adaptations should strive to stay true to the source material. Yet many times, I felt taken out of a dramatic or serious moment due to BFG’s incessant babble. Of course, this is a children’s movie, but I would definitely prefer to imagine what the Minions are discussing in their secret codex, rather than witness the linguistic struggle of BFG. Recognizing this weakness, even more praise should be granted to Mark Rylance. Rylance wholly accepts the challenge of this innovative acting experiment and succeeds in spades.
Unfortunately, Rylance’s powerhouse performance cannot overcome the tragic screenplay, wrapping up conflicts faster than they are presented on-screen. The titular character should have been built up within the audience’s minds. Spielberg rejects his patented method of manufactured suspense and tension (see Bridge of Spies for a recent example) choosing to introduce BFG within the first couple of minutes. Every single time BFG and Sophie are presented with a problem, the solution pops up in front of them with little to no time to digest the characters’ motivations and feelings. However, another bright spot of the film is the fantastic score. At times, the film is able to match the whimsical airy music, but more often than not, it fails in that endeavor. On a side note, Rudy Barnhill is also very good as Sophie, but doesn’t truly elevate her performance to save the film from its problems.
Not everything is negative in this film. Spielberg will draw people into the film early on with a creative visual take on the BFG’s fascinating physical presence. It is a treat to watch the BFG stealthily stroll down narrow city streets, away from the eye of nosy human meddlers. BFG is nimble and versatile, as the computer graphics make Road Dahl’s descriptions jump off the page. One of my favorite scenes is a classic Spielberg perspective shot. As BFG brings Sophie into his home, Spielberg focuses on Sophie’s glasses thrown on the edge of a table. From there, the camera becomes Sophie’s eyes rapidly moving throughout the BFG’s spacious home, creating a feeling of mystique and heightened tension. These scenes gave me the impression this film that could be a perfect transition into future VR content. Little did I know that the film would abruptly nosedive into a sluggish affair.
The evil giants themselves lose any manner of menace in their abrupt screen time. This is perfectly alright due to the intended audience. However, the film would be better served by cutting most of the action scenes from the film. Still, some of the utter lunacy of the presentation is enjoyable, such as a flaming train driven by a clumsy giant. The worst offender is the climactic scene, which wraps up too quickly to merit any substance. Furthermore, the campiness of the Queen’s plot feels odd in the film, yet presents some of the biggest audience laughs. Adopting this tone earlier within the film could’ve resulted in a very different film that may appeal to more audiences. Another bright spot of the film is the mesmerizing dream capture sequence. The atmosphere creates a suitably lullaby-esque mood, while subtly introducing BFG’s main tools.
Reflecting on this film, producers in the industry should ask if this was a film that should have been made. The movie has been in some sort of development, since the early 90s. An early script was met with positive feedback but production remained stagnant until Dreamworks became involved with the project. Interestingly, Dreamworks holds the copyright for the film, yet their logo is nowhere to be seen, choosing to be represented by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. I hope Rylance takes more courageous and risky acting choices, yet this first Disney release of a Spielberg film does not have enough fizz to rise to the top of the box office records.