Steven Spielberg excels at creating true family films. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is probably the brightest example of such, evoking the right mix of universal connection and direct targeting that shows he knows how multiple generations can respond to his reach. Now, roughly 35 years later, Spielberg delivers a more traditional fantasy effort with The BFG, an adaptation of a book published by Roald Dahl the exact same year as E.T. The BFG has plenty of the elements that were key to Spielberg’s earlier film, including a precocious young lead, a fully realized otherworldly character that one can find sympathetic and an elaborate John Williams score that hits hard on the emotional beats. Yet, there’s something missing to bring The BFG to that higher standard or anywhere close to it. It’s not something you can put a direct giant finger on, but it’s what keeps The BFG at an arm’s distance from the audience.
One thing’s for sure, that factor isn’t Mark Rylance as the titular giant. In contrast to his very subtle Oscar winning performance in his previous Spielberg collaboration Bridge of Spies, The BFG as brought to life by Rylance and the team of animators is a true marvel on every level. The animators manage to achieve something with the motion capture technology that pushes us closer out of the uncanny valley. Every nuance is played with pitch perfect contemplation by Rylance and the animators capture every human hesitation on a grand scale that’s appropriate and honestly magical. Despite his odd speech patterns and gangly look, The BFG manages to have a very human attitude that translates extremely well. Every nonsense word has weight, every technique to hide himself from humanity has a grace of intense practice, every quiet moment of wonder seen on Rylance’s face has a sincerity that endears us to such a cartoonish design on paper.
It does help that there’s a human touchstone for us to relate to in the form of Ruby Barnhill as young Sophie, the companion of The BFG. Her wide eyed curiosity helps engage us in the elaborate dwelling of the titular character. The scale gags shown often only work because of how well Barnhill engages with her environment. Any scene involving the dream wisps in particular work because Barnhill has an authentic ability to bring a childlike sense of attachment to a concept so otherworldly. That sense of scale is illustrated with wonderful details that reveal The BFG‘s scavenging nature without words, like his bed made out of a naval ship or his utensil case being a British telephone booth. It’s the closest The BFG feels like a true example of Disney magic, with the wisps feeling straight out of an abstract early Disney short or Rylance’s details about a dream recalling the cozy clever storytelling of something like their version of Peter Pan or a wonderful sense of perspective that feels reminiscent of Pinocchio, a Spielberg favorite touchstone as far back as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Yet, that chuckle worthy cleverness is the full extent of The BFG‘s lasting charms. As the narrative extends to the giant coming closer to “The Real World”, the narrative becomes much less grounded and more cartoonish. I haven’t read the original source novel, but it seems clear that Spielberg took some of the more childish aspects like the “Whizzpoppers” and gives it center stage for the sake of children in the audience who will immediately laugh at an elaborate fart joke. It doesn’t help that the entire build up is more of a funny yet inconsequential breakfast sequence that lasts far too long for little more than a few more scale gags that have diminishing comedic returns. It gives the real world stakes of children being eaten by the larger more aggressive giants little steaks that mean something. Even those giants aren’t too menacing, as they’re treating like bumbling fools incapable of coming together as any sort of intimidating unit. They’re clearly larger than The BFG, but they come across as simply large school bullies rather than monstrous creatures we should fear. That fear doesn’t translate even at the implications of these giants eating children, something Spielberg would usually use to ground their nature in authentic intimidation in better days. Their performers are committed to the slapstick, particularly Jemaine Clement as our lead and strongest villain giant or Bill Hader as his more explicitly goofy right hand man. They do get laughs that fit into the clever wordplay familiar to anyone who’s read Roald Dahl’s work, but often at the cost giving this any actual tension.
At his worst, Steven Spielberg can be treacly with his films. Some of his more recent efforts have shown a softness in his elder years, whether it be the light hearted takes on action in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or the childish take on the horrors of World War I with War Horse. It seems as if that bite is gone from the same man who built authentic terror in Jaws or even aggressive sci-fi paranoia in Minority Report. Of course, it’s not a bad thing depending on the project. The Adventures of Tintin managed to exists comfortably within its own cartoon logic to build impressive action sequences while endearing us to its motion captured characters. The BFG feels like a sort of bridge between his more balanced efforts in steaks and cartoonish laughs in his middle canon like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the aggressively kiddie faire like Hook. The human charm is there between Rylance and Barnhill & the design of Giant Country gives a detailed sense of scale we can believe. Yet, the threat of these giant creatures or the involvement of this caricature of British royalty manages to keep a filmgoer at a distance, a gap that never keeps the story on much more than a very basic throughline. Still, that through line is enough to earn The BFG a few endearing smiles that’ll fade before too long.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Dream Jars