Disney and Steven Spielberg team up to bring Roald Dahl’s giant-filled fantasy adventure, The BFG, to the big screen in a huge way. The film is beautiful, magical, wonderfully realized and full of heart and humor. No one can bring child-like wonder and fun to theaters like Spielberg can. He adapts his signature touch to Dahl’s 1982 story in a way that would make Disney proud. While the film isn’t Spielberg at the top of his game, it is at his most comfortable and confident. As a result, The BFG speeds along at a brisk pace, stacking one amazing visual atop another, integrating his directorial mastery with Janusz Kaminski’s exquisite cinematography, John Williams lush if familiar score, WETA’s tremendous special effects and a strong use of 3D to fully immerse his audience deep into the world of the big friendly giant. Unfortunately the film will likely be more remembered for an extraordinarily well executed fart joke and cinema’s best realized CG giants. The heart of the film, its message, and themes get lost in all the spectacle. Regardless of this film’s particular blend of visuals and tone, it is difficult to walk out of the film without a great big silly grin on your face thinking about Sophie and Giant Country – and there is nothing wrong with that.
Melissa Mathison’s (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Kundun) screenplay focuses on Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a self-reliant orphan who takes care of the orphanage each night as the adults leave things unattended to fall astray. After she startles away a quartet of drunks noisily stumbling past her street, she notices an enormous being toppling over trashcans nearby. And, to her horror, it sees her as well. Despite her best efforts to hide, the giant (Mark Rylance) snatches her from her bed and whisks her away to Giant Country and his home. She quickly learns he means her no harm and is not going to eat her. She befriends him as he hides her from the even larger giants, double his size, that live nearby. They, on the other hand, would like to swallow her whole. She names him The BFG, the big friendly giant, and quickly hatches a plan to save him from the mountainous bullies with the help of…the Queen of England. Yeah, sure, why not?
Ruby Barnhill makes an impressive film debut as Sophie, bringing a cross of the qualities of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland to her role. She is brave, smart and persistent. A bit persnickety, she is a great contrast to the over the top, exaggerated expressions of The BFG from Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies). Rylance wins over the entire audience with his first WETA enhanced smile, his soul searching eyes gleaming through the CG effects. The character is a marvel to behold. The two stars have a warm, child-friendly and fantasy-friendly chemistry that supports their becoming quick friends. Barnhill truly shines when she eventually goes face to face with the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) and her assistant, Mary (Rebecca Hall). Having the Earth scenes set in the early Eighties gives Sophie’s adventure in England a child-like perspective similar to Pipi Longstocking or Annie. It all works in the context of the story, providing a grand landscape for Spielberg to manipulate.
The CG effects from WETA are as good as they come, providing the film a variety of giants that dwarf even The BFG himself. They are far better than the creations in Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) with names like Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecruncher, Gizzardgulper, Manhugger, Childchewer, Maidmasher and Butcher Boy. These names are surprisingly lyrical rolling off the wings of Rylance’s vocals. And they’re even better when the Queen recites them later in the film. The special effects, seamlessly integrating the giants amongst a room full of soldiers, butlers and maids, are never better than when The BFG escorts Sophie to his favorite place in the whole world: a tree hiding on the other side of a pond’s reflection. This sparkling living tree is engulfed in fairy-fused dreams and nightmares flying around. If the impressive transportation from the outside world into this special place doesn’t win over the audience, the representation of the rainbow of dreams sparkling about is amazing and inspired enough to finish the job. The scene shows off Spielberg’s direction and the talent behind WETA.
Steven Spielberg brings his usual flair and pizzazz to the film. One word sums up his efforts: Magical. He also handles 3D better than he has previously, stretching some fancy camera angle muscles as Sophie, trapped in her blanket, races alongside the BFG from England to Giant Country. The camera slides in through the spaces between the giant’s hand and the blanket draped from his fingers around Sophie as she peaks over the edges. The camera gains a life of its own, ramping up the kinetic energy of the giant leaping to and fro. It makes what would be amazing on its own, heart-racingly spectacular by comparison. He also does something in a film that he may not have done so brazenly since 1941, going to great pains to set up and execute a sophomoric, giant-size joke. In this case, one of the better fart joke visuals this side of Blazing Saddles ever displayed on the big screen.
The BFG is everything you expect it to be – a brilliantly directed, warm-hearted, spectacle-filled fantasy adventure that delights its audience with every turn. The experience is magical and fun. However, the film never truly challenges its director, leaving the finished result a little too comfortable and flat in that respect. This does not prevent the film from being incredibly satisfying and rewarding. Yet, even with all the skill and astonishing effects, it doesn’t stand out from the crowd the way Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) has managed to do since its release. While that film struggled upon its initial release, becoming a cult classic over time, The BFG will land some serious dough on its release but may fade into obscurity even within Spielberg’s body of work. Ruby Barnhill’s and Mark Rylance’s performances and on screen camaraderie are a large part of what makes The BFG work. Their contrasting child-like views of the world and life make for an interesting exploration underlining the broader story. The BFG manages to overcome some of the problems recent, similarly themed films such as Pan and Alice Through the Looking Glass have suffered by keeping the focus on Sophie and The BFG. In the end, The BFG makes you laugh with delight, gasp with amazement and maybe even shed a tear of joy as well.
The BFG (3.3 / 5)