Watching Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG, you can’t help but wonder if this is what a Harry Potter movie would have looked like had he taken the reins on one of the films from that series. There’s a great deal of wild whimsy from Roald Dahl’s original novel which Spielberg so capably brings to the screen, and there’s more than enough magic to go around. It’s a wondrous tale of giants, dreams, love, and bullies, with loads of good morals and values for the kids.
For all its wonder and splendor, The BFG feels oddly rushed. “Rushed” may not be the term I’m looking for, though; “glossed over” might hit it a bit more on the head, but that’s not quite it. You see, this tale about insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the Big Friendly Giant (hereafter referred to as BFG, played by a motion-captured Mark Rylance) she meets and accompanies on adventures tends to spend overlong time in scenes designed to captivate and delight. Which, you know, would be fine if it was balanced by the characters acknowledging their faults or why they work well together.
Instead, The BFG goes and goes and goes without much room to breathe or to fully appreciate the depth of both Sophie and BFG’s souls. These two kindred spirts get tossed about by giants and nature alike, yet manage not to see how much one needs the other in their lives going forward until a forced moment before the big battle scene. It’s the Spielbergian moment that comes with every one of his films meant to arouse your emotions and wish for better things for the two of them, but it winds up being just as glossed over as the rest of the movie.
For instance: what’s the history of the conflict between BFG and the uncivilized, unwashed, and dunce-like giants who live in the valley below his front door? Why do they care what he does or doesn’t do? Is it merely because BFG is a runt of a giant, being only the size of one of these behemoth’s arms? And why does lead giant Fleshlumpeater (motion-captured Jemaine Clement) hate BFG so? Or are they merely meant to set a parallel to schoolyard bullies?
We’re not intended to know histories and backgrounds; we’re meant to sit back and enjoy a friendship being built on trust and magic, which is The BFG’s aim. Cute moments abound with the interactions between BFG and Sophie, and that’s really what we’re here to see, right? It’s amusing and touching in all the right spots, and The BFG does its family-film duty well. This is no desaturated film like Spielberg’s Minority Report or War of the Worlds; it’s as colorful as you can hope for, with all the requisite joy and vividness you’d expect.
Mark Rylance’s performance is absolutely stunning; he maintains an air of joyful mischief beneath the codger-like gruffness. It’s a gruffness that’s not gruff, per se, but more matter-of-fact combined with a bit of a grandfatherly tone. Balancing him out is newcomer Ruby Barnhill, whose natural acting carries The BFG well and makes for a hell of a debut. She’s got a little bit of the best of former Spielberg first-timers like Henry Thomas from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Amber Scott from Hook, with more than enough of her own spark which enables her to bounce well off of BFG and create her own memorable character.
It’s hard not to recommend The BFG for family viewing, and I have no intention of doing so; this review was meant to air some of my questions I had with the film. The BFG is as Steven Spielberg as Spielberg gets, creating a magic and an esprit you don’t see or get from anywhere or anyone else. We’ve seen others try to capture this kind of spirit, but without Spielberg at the helm, Janusz Kamiński’s 3D-worthy photography, and John Williams providing the lush, bouncy score to match The BFG’s visuals, they’re only pretenders to the throne.