When you hear that name, a certain image pops into your head. For most people, the name "Spielberg" conjures up a picture of wonder. A bike flying across the moon. The musical cues of an approaching shark. Piano notes signaling a new kind of close encounter. A boulder rolling towards our most iconic action hero. "Welcome to Jurassic Park." Spielberg has defined the modern blockbuster, shaped genres, and has created the cinematic playlist of a generation. But over the years, Spielberg has also grown up. He's shifted into more adult fare, and while many audience members see an image of wonder and whimsy, I'm sure some older fans will have a different perspective and different memories of his more adult movies. Whether it's the Holocaust horrors of Schindler's List or the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan or the measured political excellency of Lincoln, Spielberg has spent the last several years chronicling the definitive historical events of our time.
Spielberg has returned to his creative side for The BFG, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic tale of a little girl who happens to meet a big friendly giant in 1980s England. The relationship between Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the BFG (Mark Rylance) is beautiful and sweet, recalling the hopeful optimism of Spielberg's E.T. days. Unfortunately, as a film and as a story, The BFG just doesn't stack up, eventually emerging as one of the director's weaker efforts. It's so darn likable, but it's also missing several key ingredients, and there are a few too many times where Spielberg finds himself in retread territory with this classically told fable. It's not without its charms, but for longtime fans of the director like myself, it's sure to be viewed with extremely mixed emotions.
The BFG is much less story based than Spielberg's previous films, instead focusing on the relationship between the Big Friendly Giant and young Sophie, who is taken from her room at a London orphanage simply because the giant hears "her lonely heart." Sophie is scared at first, thinking that the giant is going to eat her. But she soon realizes that he's a friendly creature, and the two grow to like each other rather quickly. Unfortunately, the BFG's magical world of dreams and love is also occupied by nightmares and villains. The BFG is the runt of the litter, and despite his distaste for human flesh (he eats the disgusting snozzcumbers instead), his brothers don't quite see it the same way. Led by the frightening Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), the other giants will do anything it takes to get to the delicious human "beans" that they crave. With help from the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), Sophie and the BFG will devise a plan to stop these loathsome giants.
The BFG is built entirely upon the relationship between Sophie and the titular character. Without it, this movie would crumble entirely. The BFG is an incredibly tender and sweet film, utilizing the superb performances of Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Spielberg is clearly going for an E.T. vibe here, and watching him work his cinematic wizardry in the connection he creates between our two lead characters is quite amazing. Barnhill is peppy and charming, always feeling distinctly like the imaginative girl who is needed to pull off this story. Meanwhile, Oscar winner Mark Rylance (who is Spielberg's new go-to guy) pretty much steals the show in his motion capture role. You can see the heartbreak and pain in his eyes, but also the kindness, and it's a wonderful display of Rylance's range. ILM's digital magic is helpful, of course, but Rylance has the right chops to pull this role off.
The bond that Sophie and the BFG form will slap a goofy smile on your face. At the end, you may even shed a tear. I certainly came close to it. Unfortunately, those two dynamic lead performances are pretty much all that this film has to offer. I know that some critics have called this a very "personal" and "philosophical" film from Spielberg, but I just never saw any of that. Maybe I wasn't looking hard enough, or maybe I missed what the famed director was going for, but the movie I saw is severely lacking in energy and storytelling cohesion. It's almost like Spielberg had this brilliant relationship that formed the core of the movie, but didn't know what story he should be telling or what the overall end goal of it was. There's no drive to The BFG, no steady narrative movement that pushes us further and further into the world of the film. It's meandering at best, and aimlessly random at worst.
It's not like Spielberg didn't try to enhance the central core of the film. Some have suggested that he was on auto-pilot, which I certainly do not think was the case. Instead, I found that it just fell short in so many areas. The first act is whimsical and magical, whisking us away with Sophie to the land of giants and dreams. It's a great set-up for what has the potential (at the time) to be a truly unique and amazing journey. It sets up the villains, it establishes the world of Giant Country, and it makes us care about Sophie and the BFG. Then the film hits a wall. It takes some occasionally intriguing turns into areas of rich color and visual panache, but the story isn't moving. Next to nothing happens during the second act. The energy and chemistry of the first act deflates, leaving audiences to wonder just where this thing is going.
Suddenly, the story does a u-turn- Sophie decides that they need to go to the Queen of England. And so with that, we get a rushed, jarringly short, and tonally bizarre final act, compounded by an anti-climatic finish. I read the book when I was a kid, but I can't remember anything about the story. So maybe my qualms with the movie aren't really Spielberg's fault. Maybe he was just stuck with a story that feels choppy and jarring, one that isn't suited for a big-screen adaptation. That's a distinct possibility. However, Spielberg is a master storyteller, and I don't think that he would just accept a narrative that didn't flow correctly. In this movie, I see plenty of attempts to tell a driven story, but it just never comes together.
Plus, the source material argument doesn't account for the movie's numerous flaws, including the principle one of ambiguity. We don't really know much about any of the characters in The BFG, nor do we understand what time period the film is set in or why. There are times when the film appears to take place in Victorian England, but during the third act, it's jarringly revealed that the setting is actually the 1980s. Motivations are also shaky, and characters are thin. It requires you to really suspend disbelief and ignore things that either aren't explained or don't make sense. For some viewers, that will prove to be easy. For me, it was near-impossible at times.
The BFG offers little more than a small dose of Spielbergian imagination and two brilliant performances. For some, that will be more than enough. But for most Spielberg fans (and fans of cinema, for that matter), I have to imagine that The BFG will be viewed as a disappointment. It's likable and good-natured and sweet, but it just feels so under-cooked. Despite a brilliant turn from Rylance, Spielberg's latest foray into the fantasy genre is lacking in the cohesion and focused precision of his best work. With so many great elements, it's just unfortunate that the final product didn't quite come together.
THE FINAL GRADE: C+ (6.4/10)
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