‘The BFG’ Review: A Sleepy Stumble From Steven Spielberg
The BFG — or “Big Friendly Giant” — spends his days in Giant Country, collecting dreams from a magical tree and distributing them to the people of the world. No wonder this character attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg, a big friendly giant of the cinema whose work has sparked the imaginations of millions of viewers. But despite a spiritual kinship with the character, Spielberg struggles to bring his film version of The BFG to life. This movie contains a fair amount of lovely images, but it’s also the director’s most listless and dramatically inert movie in 20 years.
It starts when a lonely orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) sneaks out of bed and witnesses a large hooded figure sneaking through the streets of 1980s London. He’s the BFG (a motion-captured, digitally-distorted Mark Rylance), and when he catches Sophie spying on him, he snatches her out of her room and carries her off to the mystical land known as Giant Country. Although she’s initially terrified by this towering figure, he disarms her with his quirky speech patterns and vocabulary; he refers to himself as “I’s” instead of “I,” mangles figures of speech (as in “I’s a feature of habit”), calls fingers “figglers,” strawberries “strawbumbles,” and so on. But while the BFG is friendly, the rest of Giant Country’s even larger residents are not; the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) is particularly intent on finding and snacking on Sophie.
And that’s pretty much it in terms of plot. Spielberg revels in Giant Country’s unique sights, and the BFG himself is an impressive digital creation; when the camera zooms in on his face, the amount of detail in his lifelike wrinkles and pores is uncanny. But almost nothing happens in this movie. The BFG brings Sophie to his home and shows her around. Then he takes her to the tree where he harvests dreams and he shows her around there. Then he takes her with him and he gives dreams to children and shows her how that’s done. Janusz Kaminski’s 3D cinematography is genuinely magical at times, but there’s almost no story for it to service.
Perhaps that comes from Roald Dahl’s BFG novel (which I haven’t read), or perhaps it’s an issue with this adaptation (written by the late Melissa Mathison). There are a few allusions to the mean giants like the Fleshlumpeater eating children, but the threat they pose is left mostly oblique, further minimizing what little tension exists in the movie. Instead, Spielberg focuses on the relationship between the BFG and Sophie, which is pleasant but surprisingly uncomplicated. After their initial friction, they get along famously. All that’s left at that point, is to dutifully admire the elaborate computer-generated artistry. Several of Spielberg’s favorite themes are present — children coming of age, dreamers hungry to escape from the mundane, collisions between worlds of reality and fantasy — but he’s expressed all of them more effectively elsewhere.
Spielberg’s finest family films touch many different emotions. They’re thrilling, heartwarming, funny, magical, and even a little scary. The BFG really only hits one note — languid wonder — over and over and over. Things finally kick into gear during the third act, when an accident forces the BFG and Sophie to get proactive about the other giants and take their grievance all the way to the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), who welcomes her guests with wry hospitality. This sequence introduces a little humor, and builds to one hell of a fart joke. Frankly, it’s great to see Spielberg, shall we say, cut loose. But like so much about The BFG, Sophie’s trip to Buckingham Palace drags on way too long with too little payoff.
Given the subject matter and source material, small children should be The BFG’s target audience, and patient kids will be dazzled by the imagery. But The BFG’s sluggish pacing will test even older viewers’ attention spans. The visuals are potent, but the story is never urgent. The crux of the movie, inspiring people to dream, is a noble, beautiful thing. But not when you put them to sleep in the process.