Steven Spielberg finally directs a film for Disney, but is The BFG the second-coming of E.T. or just a run-of-the-mill family film?
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is an orphan in 1980s London with a case of insomnia. She wanders the halls of the orphanage in which she lives and reads late into the night. One night in particular, she looks out the window and sees a gigantic cloaked figure in the shadows, the BFG (Mark Rylance). Because Sophie has seen him, the BFG kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country, where he deems she must stay forever in order to keep knowledge of Giant Country secret. While captive, Sophie learns that the giant is really known as the Big Friendly Giant and she comes to befriend him. However, the other giants that live in Giant Country are not nearly as nice as BFG and they enjoy eating “human beans,” especially children. Their leader, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), suspects that the BFG is hiding a human in his home and he and his fellow giants bully the smaller BFG on a regular basis. The BFG reveals to Sophie that he harvests dreams in Dream Country and then delivers them to people around the world. Sophie feels bad for her new friend and they work on concocting a plan that will rid them of the evil giants once and for all, but it may mean that the BFG will have to reveal himself to the world, which he is not too keen on. Will the friends triumph over the bullies or will BFG be a punching bag for the rest of his life and Sophie eaten by giants?
Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, The BFG is right up Director Steven Spielberg’s alley. It is a cute, whimsical, and heartwarming tale that recalls some of Spielberg’s best work from the Eighties, like E.T. That comparison isn’t completely unwarranted, as the screenplay is by E.T.’s screenwriter, the late Melissa Mathison. While the film takes a little while to get going, Spielberg weaves a fantastical family film from the source material that will likely delight both children and the adults that need to take them to the theater. However, the film is not without its problems. For me, the giants looked too cartoony, which took me out of the picture a bit. While computer artists have gotten animals to look photo-realistic in films—see The Jungle Book—they still haven’t completely cracked humans or human-like characters yet. Now, in defense of this film, the BFG looks like a cross between actor Mark Rylance and the picture that adorns the cover of the novel, so perhaps a more stylized look is the intent, but to me, it makes the characters stand out as not real, especially when they have very human features. At that point, why not make the film a full-on CGI animated film? It was similar to the problem with Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer. For the most part, though, the CGI is very good. Also, the look of the film is great overall—great shot composition by one of the masters. John Williams’ score was also nice to hear. One other issue I had with the film, though, was the fact that Sophie’s abduction is kind of glossed over. She’s certainly put out about it, but when she and the BFG become friends, it kind of excuses her kidnapping, which is pretty messed up. That’s more an issue with the source material, but still, it was an element that stuck out to me.
The cast does a very good job here. Barnhill is adorable and precocious in her feature film debut. Spielberg shows again that he is a master at working with child actors and he gets a great performance from her. She’s a bit of a know-it-all, but it doesn’t come across as annoying at all. Sophie is a very likable character and her chemistry with Rylance is fantastic. Speaking of Rylance, since he appeared in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies last year, he has become the director’s new favorite performer—he’ll be showing up in Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One due out in 2018 as well. He does a stellar job here, coming across as menacing at first, but quickly settling into a good-natured demeanor. Also, his delivery of BFG’s mixed-up talk is spot-on. Clement delivers a funny, but also wicked performance as the lead giant. He’s a great villain and you watch with anticipation that he’ll eventually get his comeuppance.
Overall, while The BFG takes some time to draw the audience into its world, it is a sweet family-friendly film that doesn’t talk down to its audience, which is rare in Hollywood today. Though it’s not one of his best, it’s a quality Spielberg film and one of the better entries this summer.