The BFG full movie review - Bland, Fart-heavy, (but still) Glowing with Spielberg magic
Speaking of bottled dreams, try this one: it's 1992. Steven Spielberg's Hook, his Peter Pan passion project, is a smash hit.
His follow-up box office darling: an adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's classic The BFG, reuniting him with Hook champion Robin Williams (as the titular giant), and perfectly geared towards the first generation of children to grow up reading the book. The project was a dream. So, naturally, it didn't come true. Fast-forward 14 years, and Spielberg's BFG hits cinemas with a new star (RIP Robin), and a lacklustre audience of kids now likely less versed in Dahl than their iPad. Talk about nightmares
And yet, Spielberg's first kid's film since Hook is so warm, earnest, and nostalgic, it's oddly fitting to play as anachronistic. Like its titular behemoth, The BFG is visually awe-inspiring, but clumsy, lumbering, and prone to spouting well-meaning gibberish. Yet, as a vessel for heart - pure, old fashioned, un-cynical, complete with note of lamenting urgency -The BFG is Spielberg to a tee, and it's absolutely worth being swept away to giant country with him.
Compared to past cinematic cracks at Dahl, Spielberg is remarkably faithful, with passages and images transposed verbatim from the text. In many cases - the garbmarbled, gobblefunking talklarking of Dahl's giant-speak, for one - the delightful lilt of the novel translates perfectly. However, unfettered whimsy can come at a cost, and the film's pacing and emotional arc suffer heavily for paralleling, rather than adapting, Dahl's novel. The introduction - protagonist Sophie's abduction to giant country from her Dickensian orphanage - is vintage Spielberg: mysterious and magical, ominous and fiendishly exciting. However, after ascertaining that Sophie's captor, BFG, does not intend to gobble her up, the film's middle section lags tremendously, with the wonders of the BFG's workshop scarcely masking the gossamer-thin plot. Like Bridge of Spies, The BFG shows excellent Spielberg work become plodding and snoozy through overindulgent editing, risking losing kids (or adults) to their own dreams, no matter how many pretty lights and scary giants on screen. Even more distressing: seeing the (debatably) greatest living film director taking the wrong notes from Peter Jackson's despicable Hobbit trilogy. Behold: a surplus of silent side characters (the giants, apart from Jemaine Clement's Fleshlumpeater, suffer from indiscernible dwarf syndrome), eschewing character development in favour of overly convoluted, physics-flouting chase sequences. Here, the under-cooked BFG-bullying subplot is boiled down to a vaguely cringe-worthy scene of the 'mean giants' playing chicken, rolling BFG down a mountain towards a giant rollerskating on cars. For, um, some reason. As the film's only real conflict necessitates Sophie inciting BFG to rise up against their murderous cruelty, it would help if Spielberg hadn't drained the majority of their nastiness away on screen - let's not forget that Dahl's novel begins with the BFG pontificating about the tastiest humans, before countering that humans constantly "squishing" each other in war is less justifiable than the giants eating to live. Grim.
So, is the film worth it? Unfrozziloutly, yes. Naturally, it's visually sumptuous, with tactful CGI and impressively credible performance capture work. Similarly, a pre-climax visit with the Queen, who unquestioningly lends military support to the giant conflict (ahh, dreams) is so deliciously demented, you can imagine Dahl himself cackling along with an auditorium of children at the dopey farting corgi slapstick. Still, it takes visiting the dreamworld for Spielberg to really remind us all why he's here. The underwater, gravity-inverting dream tree, ensconced in flickering, multicoloured sprites, is mesmerizingly gorgeous, striking up the film's primary motivation of dreams and escapism making the troubles of the world amount to a hill of (human) beans. In one sequence, the BFG's bottled dream is broadcast on the wall - a shadow puppet play through a movie projector. It's as brazen a horn-toot to the value of cinema without a winking Spielberg stepping out from behind a camera, like Martin Scorsese in Hugo. It's an intentionally quaint idea - can't things just be pleasant, full stop? - and you can practically taste the desperation in Spielberg trying to sell it so full throttle here. But in its quieter, simpler, gentler moments, The BFG truly does remind us of what dreams are made of.
Newcomer Ruby Barnhill brings a spunky yet vulnerable edge to Sophie, making her inhabitation of the 'precocious orphan girl' archetype particularly endearing. Still, there's no question that it's Mark Rylance's eerily perfect BFG who's the highlight. Infusing his adorable bumbling with a breezy, gruff silliness (his cackling at the rocket-propelled farting-er-'whizzpopping' is what sells the otherwise stale gag) and puppy dog sadness, Rylance is arguably the most fully realized and lovable motion captured character since Gollum. Jemaine Clement brings a perfect cocktail of threat and goofiness to ringleader giant Fleshlumpeater, managing to squeeze every ounce of menace out of "I has a boo-boo," while Penelope Wilton remains delightfully regal amidst the silliest of scenarios as the chummy Queen we'd all love to pretend really heads the Monarchy. Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall are fun, but largely wasted as the Queen's attendees. Keep your eyes peeled for stellar background work from a cabal of Vancouver actors (shout out to Paul Moniz de Sá as the superbly comically windmilling, top-heavy giant Meatdripper and "Lout #3," and William Samples, master of the affronted double-take, as an incredulous royal footman).
Breezy Feel Good; Banal Fluffy Galvani (I *barely* resisted the temptation to write this review entirely in acronyms), Spielberg's penchant for "Only good dreams" may make his BFG somewhat flimsier and more forgettable than anticipated. But that's the thing about giants - there's so much of them to love, and as BFG quips, "I is not right all the time; quite often I is left". So, for a film that encapsulates pleasantness and charm in every sense of the words, Spielberg's BFG is, yes, a dream come true.