There’s not much to say about The BFG, as it is quite frankly Spielberg’s slightest film in a long while, and a decided come-down after the excellent Bridge of Spies. That is still a decent film, and at least free of the stodgy tastefulness which marred some of his other recent output, is at best a mild comfort, but it will have to do.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) lives in a London orphanage, where one night she happens to notice a giant (Mark Rylance) sneaking around the city. The giant grabs her and takes her to his home in Giant Country, explaining that he had to take her lest she reveal the existence of giants to the world. Despite her abduction, he is otherwise gentle and kind, and she names him “BFG” – for “Big Friendly Giant”.
His fellow giants, led by the brutish Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement), are not so friendly, however; their craving is for human flesh, and they detect Sophie’s presence but are unable to find her in BFG’s dwelling. They do, however, bully BFG mercilessly, in part because he is only about as half as large as they, and because unlike them, he keeps a vegetarian diet (mainly consisting of the rather vile “snozzcumbers”).
When Fleshlumpeater and his cohorts begin stealing and eating British children, Sophie hatches a plan to defeat them. BFG’s main occupation is in distilling and distributing dreams, so they will give a nightmare to convince Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) of the existence of giants both malevolent and benign. They go to Buckingham Palace and give the Queen the nightmare, and upon waking she sees a newspaper reporting the mysterious disappearances of children…and Sophie sitting in her windowsill.
Sophie convinces BFG to show himself, and they all breakfast together (BFG being given a sword and pitchfork as tableware) while the Queen arranges for the British Army to follow BFG to Giant Country, where they arrest Fleshlumpeater and company and leave them on a deserted island…with a lifetime supply of snozzcumbers. Sophie is adopted by the Queen’s maid (Rebecca Hall), but is able to keep in touch with BFG, as his ears can hear her speak from miles away.
What’s frustrating about The BFG is that the above synopsis is really about it as far as story goes. That would be less of an issue if the characters were more fleshed out or the film were shorter, but neither is the case. At 117 minutes, it’s far too long, and the pace is often logy, with some scenes dragging on far longer than necessary. Take the scene where the malicious giants use abandoned cars and trucks to play some kind of a game, the purpose of which is to harass BFG and provide Sophie with repeated opportunities not to be seen; the giants’ slow, lumbering motions and the lack of any real urgency make the scene actively tedious.
Which leads me to what may be the film’s greatest fundamental weakness: its script. It was the final work of the late Melissa Mathison, but it was far from her best. I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s novel, and I haven’t seen the 1989 animated adaptation in years, so I don’t remember if there was really so little to the story, but it badly lacks any sense of urgency or character.
First, the lack of urgency. So much of what might heighten the drama of the story is kept offscreen; we see nothing to suggest Sophie is particularly bad off in the orphanage (at least Pan got that right), nor is BFG’s abduction of her based on anything other than his rather vague fear that she will reveal the existence of giants to the world, leading them to be kept in cages and on public display; she even points out that she would almost certainly not be believed, but the plot had to start somehow.
Also, when Fleshlumpeater and his gang abduct and eat children from across England, we only see them in long-shot walking across the horizon; we never see the children or the fallout of their abduction. E.T. could damn near die, Tim Murphy could be damn near fried, but here…nothing. (Also, if they could get their hands on human flesh so easily, why would they care if BFG had one child in his dwelling?)
This plays into the lack of character: Fleshlumpeater and the other man-eating giants are virtual ciphers. Bill Hader plays Bloodbottler, Fleshlumpeater’s right-hand…giant, but could have literally been played by anyone. Fleshlumpeater, for that matter, betrays none of Clement’s comic or dramatic abilities; he’s just a generic ugly brute. They all are. They’re too inept and too bland to be a threat or frightening. They’re not even especially funny.
Dahl could create memorable villains, and those villains could be well-translated to the screen: take the wondeful film of Matilda, with Pam Ferris as the hateful Trunchbull, and Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as Matilda’s obnoxious parents. Compared to them, Fleshlumpeater barely registers.
Then again, Sophie herself doesn’t register much, either. Barnhill does a technically adequate job, but she doesn’t do much beyond look around in slack-jawed amazement or act mildly precocious. I’m not sure if the issue is her performance or the character, but certainly Sophie’s lack of an arc or any really distinctive qualities gave her little to work with. Matilda had the Trunch to defeat, Magnus to avenge, and her parents to escape; Sophie is by contrast a fairly passive character.
What really keeps the film afloat at all is Rylance, whose warm and genial performance overcomes even the tiresomely precious conceit of BFG’s mangling of the English language. The motion-capture CGI used on him and the other giants is surprisingly not great, but he gives the film what heart it has, and the emotional bond between Sophie and BFG – as much of a family as either has ever had – does come off. The final moment, when BFG hears her far-away “Good morning”, is quite touching.
There’s also a dialogue-free scene where Sophie explores the former dwelling place of a boy long since taken by BFG, who met with a far sadder fate; it doesn’t pack the punch it could have, but it stands as one of the film’s more effective moments.
Too bad so much of the film is devoted to sluggish action and limp comedy. The interlude in Buckingham Palace, for example, gives us not only an extended fart joke involving the Queen, her Corgis, and BFG’s gaseous beverage of choice, Frobscottle, but also an incredibly dated jab at Ronald Reagan (the only indication that the film is set in the 80s, when the novel was published). It’s hard to imagine anyone would be too amused by this, as the heavy pace would likely bore children and the lack of wit would likely put off most adults.
For the most part, Spielberg is kind of phoning it in here, with only one sequence really achieving a sense of characteristic wonder: the trip to Dream Country, where one can leap from a shore, into a sea, and land on a shore on the other side, and where dreams are depicted a swirling clouds of color to be woven together by BFG into a soothing – or unsettling – whole. Likewise, Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography and Michael Kahn’s editing feel a bit off the boil this time around, and John Williams’ score seems like a rehash of his past work; it has hardly remained in my head, but I recall it sounding a fair amount like his themes for Harry Potter.
Besides Barnhill and Rylance, the cast doesn’t make much of an impression: no one does a conspicuously bad job, but no one really stands out. The production design is fairly good, especially BFG’s gently grotesque home, and if the mo-cap is a touch dodgy, the special effects are otherwise quite solid.
Really, that’s the prevailing feeling The BFG left me with. It’s certainly watchable, flaws aside, produced at a fairly consistent level of competence and elevated by a good titular performance. But it rarely excels, takes too long to get not much of anywhere, and will likely stick in few memories. Whatever the motivating passion behind its making was, it has not really made it onto the screen.