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The BFG (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 25, 2020



THE BFG (2016)

Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Wilton, Bill Hader, Rafe Spall, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Adam Godley, Michael Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moniz de Sa, Marilyn Norry and Matt Frewer.

Screenplay by Melissa Matheson.

Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.  110 minutes.  Rated PG.

Not all that much happens, at least from a traditional plotting sense, in Steven Spielberg’s sparkly and imaginative adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book The BFG.  Yet, that not all that much which does happen comes off pretty spectacularly.

Perhaps understandably for a film about a mysterious giant who roams the streets of London at night capturing children’s dreams, The BFG has a dreamlike lack of logic and structure.  It is essentially just a series of spectacular set pieces, brightly colored lights, fart jokes and hulking monsters held together with only the whispiest of plot strands.

Yet, The BFG also holds a sweet and questing nature, just like its two lead characters, a young London orphan named Sophie and the 24-foot-tall stranger who whisks her away from her orphanage in the night.  It becomes quickly obvious that the giant isn’t a malicious or scary monster, he has laughing eyes and a tendency to good-heartedly mangle the English language.  Besides, his self-proclaimed BFG nickname stands for “the big, friendly giant.”

Of course, it turns out that he isn’t the big giant after all.  When he returns Sophie to his home in Giant Land, it turns out that he is significantly the smallest giant there.  (The others call him “Runt” as a not very affectionate nickname.  He is not even half the size of most of the other giants, who relentlessly bully him and have a sweet tooth for “human beans.”  (Unlike his brethren, BFG is more than happy to survive on a slimy cucumber-esque vegetable called snozzberries and a fizzy drink called frobscottle.)  While it is never out and out said in the film, it seems pretty obvious that the last child who BFG brought home, a little boy, became a snack for his rude neighbors.

Oh, and the Queen of England (as played by Penelope Wilton) makes an appearance, because… why not?  In this film’s sleepytime logic, it makes complete sense that the Queen would befriend and bend over backwards to help an eight year old orphan and her giant.

It’s just that kind of story.

And yet, it all somehow mostly works in its wonky dreamtime scenario.

Sophie is well played by Ruby Barnhill, who is an absolute dead ringer for former child actress Mara Wilson, who starred in the 90s film version of another one of Dahl’s classic books, Matilda.  I guess Dahl had a type.  Barnhill is absolutely adorable, and yet stops well short of being cutesy, which is a hard trick for most children in film to pull off.  She feels natural in a world which is not in any way natural.

However, the heavy lifting, acting-wise, falls on Mark Rylance, who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his previous collaboration with Spielberg last year, in Bridge of Spies.  (Honestly, while Rylance was terrific in that role, it was a shock and a bit of a disappointment that the Oscar didn’t go to Sylvester Stallone for his career-revitalizing performance in Creed.)

The role here is all the much harder, because most of it is done with motion capture animation.  That is not an easy way for any actor to work – for every natural at the style like Andy Serkis, there are many more who come off as antic, mannered and unrealistic when acting with hundreds of electrical dots connected to their body.  (At least finally, they seem to have finally figured out how to get rid of the black, dead eyes that motion-captured characters always seemed to have.)

This is not Spielberg’s first go-around with motion capture (he directed The Adventures of Tin Tin a few years ago) and with Rylance he has found the perfect vehicle for this very particular technique.  The actor is able to find a savvy lack of guile and an infectious smile to make his slightly odd-looking doppelganger seem sweet, caring and lovable.  You can see why a lonely little girl would quickly consider him to be her best friend.

The other giants, while better than characters in some previous motion-captured films, feel much more like common cartoon criminals, the type of characters which could be created with any form of animation.

However, overall, The BFG looks stunning.  From the night streets of a magical London (circa the 1980s) to a lovely Buckingham Palace to a wonderfully quirky lair of the giant, The BFG is a feast for the eyes.

As an adult, I can’t see wanting to drop in on the world of The BFG on any kind of regular basis, though I can see children spending lots of time there.  The BFG was made with an entirely different kind of audience in mind, which is just fine.  However, I am glad that I made the visit at least once.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: July 1, 2016.

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