Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Premise: Based on the book by Roald Dahl. An orphan (Ruby Barnhill) befriends a big friendly giant (Mark Rylance) but other giants who are set upon eating children begin searching for the little girl.
What Works: Any given scene in The BFG is well executed. Part of the reason Steven Spielberg has had such a successful career is that he has collected a team of regular collaborators whose are at the top of their fields including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, production designer Rick Carter, and costume designer Joanna Johnston. The title role of The BFG is played by Mark Rylance, who had previously given a stellar supporting performance in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and the screenplay is credited to the late Melissa Mathison who wrote E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. That combination of talents results in many scenes and set pieces that are extremely well crafted. The performance by Rylance is especially notable. The Big Friendly Giant is a fusion of Rylance’s performance and digital effects and there are some extraordinary glimmers of humanity in the giant.
What Doesn’t: The BFG is a peculiar movie in that so much effort and care was clearly put into the making of this movie and yet the film falls flat. Part of the problem may be Spielberg. Starting in the 1990s, the director began alternating between the popcorn fare with which he had established his name and more serious historical dramas. At some point in the last decade it became clear that Spielberg had outgrown the fantasies of his early career and when he returned to them in projects like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the finished products came across awkward and halfhearted. The BFG is thematically and tonally similar to Spielberg’s E.T. but it is missing many of the elements that made the 1982 film a classic of family-friendly fantasy. The main problem of this movie is Sophie, the child protagonist played by Ruby Barnhill. The actress is fine in the part and Barnhill shows promise as an actor. The story, however, does not give Sophie a background or develop her as a character. Compare Sophie to Elliot (Henry Thomas) and his siblings in E.T. Those kids felt real and before the adventure began they were established as children of divorce. The appearance of an alien fit into their fragmented family life. Sophie comes from an equivalent background but the filmmakers don’t establish her plight and the movie throws the audience into an adventure with a main character who is unknown to us. From then on The BFG fails to tell a story that is interesting or has a coherent motive. Stories need to feel like they are going somewhere. Characters should be striving toward their goals and working toward a resolution and an epiphany. The BFG is lacking on all of those counts. There is no substance to this story and it has no narrative momentum. Sophie is abducted by the giant but as an orphan she’s got nowhere to go and she befriends the BFG very quickly. That eliminates any potential for tension or growth. Mark Rylance’s character is bullied by the other giants who want to eat Sophie. But after an initial set piece the movie isn’t working toward a final confrontation. The film has no tension and no stakes. Something Spielberg did especially well in his early career—and notably well in E.T.—was putting children in jeopardy. Spielberg understood what young viewers could take and he put child characters in situations that required them to be brave and to overcome obstacles. That never happens in The BFG. At no point does Sophie or the giant ever seem like they are going to fail and story is utterly without drama. As a result, The BFG is frequently boring.
Bottom Line: The BFG has some great looking imagery but it’s just not very entertaining. The movie is unlikely to hold the attention of children or their parents because it fails so fundamentally with its storytelling.
Episode: #604 (July 24, 2016)