"The BFG" Review
I remember reading author Roald Dahl's book, The BFG, in elementary school. Like many of Dahl's stories, including James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox (all of which received terrific film adaptations), this tale was full of whimsy and wonder, with charming illustrations. Now The Big Friendly Giant has squeezed himself onto the Silver Screen in director Steven Spielberg's first-ever Disney movie.
The iconic filmmaker read chapters of The BFG to his kids when they were young and knew that this was a story destined to be told cinematically. He needed two key components: the perfect actors for his two lead characters. Spielberg cast Mark Rylance, who recently won an Oscar for their last collaboration, the Cold War drama "Bridge of Spies", to play The BFG. Rylance uses motion-capture technology to make his character a literal, towering giant, and the effects are some of the best I've seen in a film to date. And Spielberg also hand-picked Ruby Barnhill, who turns 12 this month, as young Sophie, who is taken from her orphanage one evening by The BFG and brought to his cave in Giant Country.
The BFG is a dream-catcher. He goes into an underground fortress (one of the film's more visually-striking sequences) and collects colorful sparkles that he stores in jars. He then travels to various locations and allows the dreams to flutter into the children and adults while they're sleeping. Sophie forms a genuine relationship with The BFG, and the two devise plans to avoid and eventually defeat the nine mean giants who roam the land and enjoy eating humans.
Yes, "The BFG" sounds rather tame in the narrative department. And it is. But that's not the main issue with the film. It's the extremely tepid pace that makes the first hour-plus a real challenge to endure as every situation, conversation and encounter feels like it's happening in slow-motion. Spielberg's decision to make everything so drawn-out will likely put most audience members over the age of 10 into nap mode. And even later in the film, when Sophie and The BFG do encounter some danger, there's no true feeling of suspense or dramatic tension.
It's only in the final act, when Sophie (Barnhill reminds me a lot of Mara Wilson from 1996's "Matilda", another Dahl book-turned-movie) asks her new friend to "be brave", that "The BFG" finally gets cooking. There's a very quirky and amusing 20-minute stretch that infuses some life into the otherwise highly monotone script.
The BFG was published in 1982, the same year Spielberg's "E.T." was released. Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall co-produced that masterpiece with Spielberg and reunite with him on this film. But the same spirit of adventure isn't quite there. The story is set in the 80s (though only one line of dialogue alludes to the time period). Life before the internet, cell phones and "Dora the Explorer" may seem too dull even for fans of the book.
"The BFG" does have its share of Spielberg touches, such as the foreshadowing of Sophie looking into a dollhouse in the opening scene, and a dream sequence brought to life using shadows and a curtain. There are also some sweet messages about the importance of dreams and having a vivid imagination. Barnhill's debut is impressive. She's authentic and delightful alongside Rylance, and the final scene is quite strong. However, because of its overall lack of energy, "The BFG" comes-up short in its effort to become a family classic.