By Chaz Lipp
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG is a perplexing project. First off, it is the swan song of screenwriter Melissa Mathison, Oscar-nominated for writing the beloved E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Mathison passed away on November 4, 2015, and the film is fittingly dedicated to her memory. In pre-release promotional materials, Spielberg made it clear that he intended the film as an E.T. reunion between he, Mathison, and composer John Williams. While by no means difficult to sit through, the result feels distressingly inconsequential and emotionally stilted. It’s unfortunate that, despite everyone’s obvious best intentions, The BFG just isn’t the family classic it was designed to be.
There are, in fact, many good things about this story of a runty giant (yes, an oxymoron but oh-so-true when compared to the truly massive giants he lives among) who abducts a young orphan girl. For one, the runt is portrayed (via motion capture) by Mark Rylance. He shows greater range here than in the one-note role in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (my heart still weeps for the jilted Sylvester Stallone). And the real discovery is 11-year-old newcomer Ruby Barnhill who plays Sophie, the orphan who finds a best friend and unlikely father figure in Rylance’s “BFG” (Big Friendly Giant). Barnhill admirably overcomes a thinly-written role by sidestepping all of the common too-cute child actor cliches. Her love for the giant genuinely shines through.
The main problem with BFG is the actual story is so slight, there’s long stretches of dead air weighing down its 117-minute running time. BFG “kidnaps” the insomniac Sophie because she spotted him outside her orphanage window late one night. He can’t risk her informing people of his existence. The giant’s “work” involves catching dreams and deploying them on unsuspecting sleeping individuals. The point of this so-called job is never satisfactorily explored; suffice it to say BFG has scores of bottled “dreams” (blobs of gyrating neon pixie dust) back in his native Giant Country. No one in the civilized world (BFG is set in contemporary England) has a clue about this enchanted land. It’s mostly populated by monstrous giants who eat abducted children (“human beans” in giant parlance). Not coincidentally, England happens to be dealing with a rash of missing children.
The BFG might’ve been more effective as a streamlined, 80-minute quickie. So many plot mechanics are crammed into the third act, it makes one wonder why the first two acts are so leisurely paced. Once Sophie, actively pursued by the unfriendly giants and distressed over their unrelenting bullying of BFG, enlists the assistance of a sympathetic Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton), Spielberg has to rush in order to wrap things up. Early on, many segments seem to suffer from slack editing. Too many scenes seem to hang in the air, as if waiting for a punchline or some other kind of point. The BFG lumbers around in near-slow motion, which is how Spielberg has chosen to pace the film. By the time he interjects some pep, he’s lost his audience.
The BFG Images: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures