Steven Spielberg brings to life Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s story with the help of late screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who wrote the director’s classic E.T.) & actor Mark Rylance as the eponymous title character…
Stephen Spielberg’s The BFG seems like a perfect project for the director, especially given the hiring of E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison to bring Roald Dahl’s novel to the screen. But despite Hollywood’s Golden Boy filmmaker possessing the keys to one of the most popular children’s books, this live action version of The BFG is an overlong, stylish but hollow affair.
A project that’s been gestating since 1991 (around the time Spielberg brought Hook, an updated version of J. M. Barrie’s much loved Peter Pan, to the silver screen), The BFG’s wait to be reimagined in live action form may have benefitted from the delay. That’s because one of the film’s real joys is its computer trickery that brings the world of giants alive, especially Weta Digital’s creation of the BFG after the special effects studios’ acclaimed work making Gollum a living, breathing character in the Lords of the Rings films.
Spielberg must also be applauded for putting actor Mark Rylance in the role of the Big Friendly Giant. It’s an inspired choice. Rylance’s mannerisms, particularly the facial expressions captured so brilliantly by Weta Digital’s CGI wizards, and his delivery of an infantalised version of English, is a real delight. While the tragedy that plagues this larger-than-life character is diluted for the eyes and ears of a young audience, Rylance brings a poignancy that makes the existence of this fantastical creature that bit more real and, importantly, moving.
Spielberg’s version of The BFG sticks closely to the source but spends extra time fleshing out the world of giant country and the relationship between our two protagonists. It is at its strongest – and most engaging – in the first half when the Big Friendly Giant decides to abduct ten-year-old orphan Sophie because she spots him prowling the streets one night. London is beautifully realised, the night time shots lit by streetlight before we journey to Giant Country. Now long-time collaborating cinematographer Janusz Kamiński again showcases his brilliant eye for detail. I lost count of the amount of times single frames could be captured as works of art in themselves.
Act 1 sees the relationship between the giant and Sophie develop. Through her we get to explore the BFG’s home – the prepping the snozzcumbers, the depiction of a literal version of a water bed, and the revelation about friendly and child-eating villainous versions of giants. The roaring fireplace that sits as a backdrop is fitting for this part of the story as it feels like a tale you’d tell around a scout camp under a moonlit sky. Indeed, the introduction of the antagonists makes for some dramatic sequences as Sophie tries to stay out of sight.
It’s as the film comes to its third act that it begins to lose much of its shine. Sticking to the book’s use of the Queen as it’s purveyor of good might tie the film and source together but feels dated. That the monarch has the power to influence such as this may feel contrived to some. For kids it isn’t an issue but Spielberg has shown in the past how adept he is at making family films for everyone. By the time The BFG enters the final showdown, you know this one is solely for young eyes.
Indeed, the rushed final quarter loses some of the film’s genuine qualities. The fish-out-of-water jokes fall flat and the revelation of the giant to an unsuspecting public portrays a throwaway acceptance that appears manufactured. By the time the military is travelling to Giant Country, Spielberg’s trademark visual imagination and ability to develop edge-of-your-seat action sequences is strangely missing. For an ending with The BFG’s potential, this is surprisingly limp.
That is perhaps why the strengths of the film’s first half are largely forgotten by the time the finale arrives. Technically accomplished in score, visual effects and photography, The BFG also boasts a moving performance from a CGI’ed Rylance, but is ultimately a forgettable experience.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Melissa Mathison
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Jonathan Holmes
Released: 2016 / Genre: Fantasy-Adventure
Country: USA / IMDB
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Top 10 Films reviewed The BFG on Amazon Prime Video courtesy of Amazon.