Rubie Barnhill stars as Sophie, a young girl living in a London orphanage. At night, she opens her window and encounters a big, friendly giant who she names BFG. It turns out the giant (embodied by Mark Rylance in a motion capture enhanced and vocal performance) doesn’t want to eat her. Instead, he desires her friendship and she teaches him to stand up to the other giants who torment him.
Director Steven Spielberg’s film blends state of the art CGI with live-action footage but should have been fully CGI animated. Roald Dahl’s story cries out for animation, as most of the film (adapted by the late Melissa Mathison) takes place in fantastical settings. A bigger problem is one the film shares with Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” as the weight of the technical achievements stomps down on the small, simpler aspects of the story.
While it can’t be denied that the creation of the title character exudes the utmost artistry, it poses something of a problem. The visual effects are stunning and the character is vivid and utterly believable in close-ups. Yet, BFG always looks like a special effect and I could never lose myself to the figure, who is meant to be endearing and vulnerable. The digitized Rylance is peculiar looking, resembling a middle aged Edward Norton with giant ears, but seeing the actor give a live action turn (rather than a motion capture one) would have been preferable. The whole movie is like that: this is technical filmmaking at the highest level, but I was more impressed with the impeccable craftsmanship more than the story or any of the characters.
The same problem I had with “The Adventures of Tin Tin,” “Lincoln,” “War Horse” and “Bridge of Spies” applies here. Spielberg still makes great looking films that are passionate about the cinematic lineage that inspired them. Yet, his latest feel stodgy, over-produced and lacking richer emotion. Also, the post-9/11 Spielberg has an easier time expressing dark pessimism than exuding the Peter Pan qualities of his earlier films.
John Williams’ twinkling score aides the mood and sets a fairy tale tone but, as much as I hate to criticize Williams, he isn’t creating anything fresh. He and Spielberg are in their comfort zone but might be too old and overly familiar with the genre to bring something new to the proceedings.
The context seems creepy. While the story conveys an anti-bullying message, we have a middle aged male giant who abducts a girl from her bed, takes her to his faraway land and won’t let her leave. Lurking nearby are a cluster of much bigger, middle aged male giants who regularly kidnap and eat children. A moment early on establishes that the mean giants could be a dream representation of real men Sophie sees one night outside her window, but this is never confirmed. Because the film takes place in a world with dream makers, dream catchers and dream logic, I was never certain (though not frustrated) by the narrative’s ambiguity towards its contrasting realities. Dahl’s stories have uneasy, even violent qualities to them but the edge in this tale mostly fades to the background.
A major turning point is the introduction of Her Royal Majesty The Queen to the narrative. She’s played by Penelope Wilton. These scenes are fairly amusing but are so out of left field, blending the “real” world with empty streets, looming giants, faraway lands and mystical caves, it feels jarring. Overall, this portion of the story leads to the film’s greatest distinction and most memorable scene. Spielberg stages what is, without a doubt, the most elaborate fart joke since the dinner scene in “The Nutty Professor” twenty years ago. This is noteworthy, I suppose, but definitely a dubious accomplishment. Coming from the filmmaker who has given me so much, both in my childhood and as an adult, I was hoping for more than a state of the art flatulence joke.