'The BFG' Review

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures
3.5

Steven Spielberg used to make his living on fantasy adventures and kid-driven movies for the whole family. But in truth, those Spielberg movies have been very scarce for the last 25 years, as he's been doing very adult themed movies lately. As such, The BFG is more of an anomaly for the Spielberg of today, even with Disney and source material from Roald Dahl behind him.

Compared to the more hyperactive family movies of today, several of which premiered trailers right before this film as proof, The BFG is rather old school. Spielberg's return to the genre is more leisurely and gentle, which might bore some little ones or disappoint the older Dahl fans who would prefer more bite. Yet it truly hits a sweet spot in more ways than one when it works like a dream.

Little orphan girl Sophie is always awake at night in her orphanage, fearful of the 'boogeyman' that comes and snatches children. But the boogeyman she actually meets is a giant with a very different vocabulary than hers, and a much different diet than the bigger and far meaner giants in his country. When Sophie is snatched into Giant Country and gets to know the friendly giant and his work as a 'dream catcher' a friendship is born that gives both of them courage to try and stop the other, hungrier child snatching giants, and to even enlist help from the highest human authority.

The opening titles credit the film as Roald Dahl's The BFG, although readers of the book and of Dahl can better judge if this truly resembles Dahl's original vision. The likes of the two Chocolate Factory movies, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach have brought Dahl's not always kid friendly black comedy, satirical bite and occasional nastiness to life, yet by those standards, The BFG is relatively tame. To those who still like to dismiss Spielberg as not being truly dark and fully adult, no matter how many brutal war movies and dramas he makes, The BFG will probably give them another reason to crow.

Dahl's inspiration really comes from the words, or rather the words the BFG mangles up at every turn. Anyone who doesn't have patience for so many jokes about garbled English, made up names and mispronounced words will likely tune out very quickly. But at the very least, they make the DVD worth buying when it comes out, if only so people can read the subtitles to better understand all the phrases and to make some effort to spell them. In that regard, it is almost like a British gangster/cockney film or show.

Visuals have usually been Spielberg's strength more than words, and that is where he comes through again. After the all too fake and unconvincing visual bombast of Independence Day: Resurgence last week, seeing an actual master in Spielberg at work with CGI and otherworldly visuals makes a huge difference. Instead of giant alien ships that have gotten much more fake since 1996, Spielberg is at work with big friendly giants that are far more seamless and able to act.

Spielberg's main partner in this is his new favorite actor, with Mark Rylance going from his surprise Oscar victory in Bridge of Spies to the much more outgoing and comic BFG. While Rylance obviously doesn't play things so close to the chest here, the same gentle, hangdog eyes and face that he wore as an imprisoned Soviet spy are amplified on the face of a consideraly taller and more fantasy driven giant. For the sheer skill in getting his mouth around Dahl and screenwriter Melissa Mathison's tongue twisters, and for being able to put such a human touch into the digital face and body of a giant, Rylance caps off quite a contrasting but impressive doubleheader of very different breakout performances for Spielberg.

Rylance also has to do this and act alongside young Ruby Barnhill, even with the obvious physical differences. But while she is little, Barnhill still stands toe to toe in spirt with Rylance and the BFG. It obviously goes a long way in a buddy/friendship movie if the lead characters actually have a connection and can keep viewers engaged in it for the whole movie, which Rylance and Barnhill easily do together. One can argue they do more to forge this chemistry and connection than the script does, making it both a blessing and a drawback.

Spielberg does the rest of the heavy lifting to a near magical degree in a few sequences, as per his usual. He wastes no time in getting going in the opening sequence/abduction, down to the funny way in which the BFG hides himself from the human bean world. Once he gets Sophie to Giant Country, the 3D certainly puts viewers more up close and personal with his slimy 'snozzcumbers' than they would probably like. Strangely enough, two big gags involving a flatulence-inducing drink of the BFG are far less gross, and are probably the best crafted fart jokes in a long time.

The visuals really take off in a sequence where the BFG brings Sophie to Dream Country, the birthplace of all good and bad dreams. Afterwards, when Sophie has to evade the nastier giants at the BFG's home, Spielberg's long tracking shots and Rube Goldberg like settings make for an exciting set piece. However, the greatest sight gags of the film come in a long sequence where Sophie and the BFG pay a visit to a familiar human location, complete with an explosive punch line.

Such sequences and moments between Sophie and the BFG are enough to power the movie. Still, things go slower when they actually have to focus on the plot involving the evil giants, which is more of an intrusion than anything else. With bullying that is more generic than the average brutal figures in a Dahl story, the rest of the giants end the fun in more ways than one, even with Jemaine Clement voicing their leader and Bill Hader supposedly voicing one of the others in the gang.

Once the third act's big comic set piece ends, the actual climax is more anticlimactic, including a moment with linking fingers that Spielberg at least halfway rips off from E.T. However, the final moment does bring a lump to the throat, which is a relative change of pace from Spielberg's disappointing finales over the years.

If one thinks of The BFG more critically, it may not hold up as well as it does in the moment. And with projections of a less than stellar box office than a typical Spielberg family movie and recent Disney film, perhaps it shows that Spielberg's brand name for family films has faded after years of grown up dramas. If this was made in the early 90s or even the early 2000s, it might have been a different story, as maybe too much time went by until Spielberg's return to the genre.

Unfortunately, so many too long in the making sequels this year have provided the same cautionary tale, like Independence Day: Resurgence, Zoolander 2 and more. Yet considering the greater value The BFG has by comparison, grouping it with those sequels is a bit unfair.

Even a lesser Spielberg can still evoke much more humanity and visual wonder than many films that have passed for blockbusters so far this summer, and have so many more wonderful sequences and little moments. That low standard may not be extremely flattering, but The BFG remains a film which approaches a higher standard in its very best moments with its very best elements. It should probably be a more complete movie considering all that, although that can't be held as a total deal breaker against it.

In a summer movie season with a lot of high profile casualties already, it is telling that Disney has stood above it in both quality and box office, from its Marvel produced Captain America: Civil War to its Pixar made Finding Dory and now to The BFG, even if the latter may not have the box office of the first two. Still, the second purely Disney live action film of the summer doesn't meet the same dire creative fate of its first in Alice Through the Looking Glass, and should be more fondly remembered in every way.