An Uneven Magical Spectacle – The BFG Review

I wrote a shorter version of this review originally for CLTure and it was posted on their site on June 30, 2016. 

There is barely a bookshelf that has not held the weight of their words of Roald Dahl. His stories delight our imaginations and often contain larger moral messages about sharing, growing up, or the importance of family. Though his narratives are ultimately simple, the manner in which Dahl tells his stories is so large that it challenges the imagination to keep up. But isn’t that the joy of childhood? That our imaginations are so delightfully capable of bending, stretching, and lifting the words we read up into a world of endless possibilities on the backs of authors who strive to enrich and encourage? Unfortunately, this is also the greatest obstacle as the translation from imagination to live-action doesn’t always translate well as we’ve seen through efforts to bring Dahl’s works to the big screen

The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg with a script adapted by Melissa Mathison, which tells the story of the orphan girl, Sophie, and her adventure in Giant Country with the Big Friendly Giant. After catching Sophie spying on him as he works his way through London, the BFG grabs her and takes her to back to his home before she can alert the public to the presence of giants. Quickly, Sophie learns that the BFG is an outcast like her, shunned by his fellow giants for being a vegetarian and trying to protect humans, while they prefer to hunt children in the night for snacking. In a tale about friendship and family, Sophie and the BFG devise a plan to stop the giants from eating more children throughout the world.

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At its core, The BFG is a story about two lonely individuals finding their place, together, in the world. Sophie (relative newcomer Ruby Barnhill) spends her nights prowling around the orphanage unable to sleep due to insomnia, while the BFG (Mark Rylance) spends his nights blowing dreams into the minds of sleepers around the world. Though each are struck at first by each other’s differences – Sophie is brash and combative, while BFG is quiet and passive – they quickly develop a strong bond over their shared loneliness with Sophie seeking to learn about the BFG’s work and join him as he harvests dreams. For their parts, Barnhill and Rylance are utterly convincing in their respective roles. As children can be, Barnhill oscillates quickly between fear and admiration as she delves into a world she never dreamed to be real. Rylance is charming as the titular BFG, capturing the innocence and pure love that radiates from pages of Dahl’s own story. Their performances are honest and their relationship believable, yet it’s not enough to keep the narrative engaging. The BFG is not an action-packed tale, but, with its 117 minute run-time, does need to feel as though something is happening without relying on fart jokes to reach the audience. Because of this sense of slow momentum, moments meant to inspire laughter or a bit of sadness failed to elicit a vocal reaction from the audience. The silence was both telling and deafening.

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Similarly, the visuals run into an odd dichotomy as well as they both invoke the wonder of classic Disney films while also failing miserably to maintain the illusions of fantasy. To his credit, for his first foray into Disney films, Spielberg clearly took great pains to recreate the book for the big screen and that’s a monumental task all by itself. From Dream Country, where the BFG harvests his dreams, to the streets of London, where the story begins, all the way to Giant Country, where BFG and his fellow giants live, everything looks and feels absolutely real in all their majestic splendor. Spielberg possesses a natural talent for grounding stories so that, even when dealing with the supernatural, everything feels tangible and real. However, once the two worlds collide, the CGI technology can’t maintain the illusion. Each time the human world and giant world are shown on-screen together, it quickly becomes apparent that the actors, on both sides, are engaging with a green screen, not their fellow actors. Though a little off-putting in smaller scenes, this separation becomes even more distracting toward the story’s end. It’s possible that the separation between actors and CGI was more prominent because we were shown a 3D print of The BFG so there may be more visual disruption than a standard 2D print, but I imagine it’ll be just as distracting either way. Reportedly, Spielberg decided against using camera tricks and larger sets in favor of green screen and CGI to convey the enormous size discrepancy between humans and giants. Perhaps Spielberg was looking to emulate Disney classics like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Mary Poppins in his first outing with the Mouse House, but it doesn’t invoke nostalgia so much as dispel any suspension of disbelief.

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In the end, Spielberg and Mathison created a perfect representation of what The BFG is – a quiet tale of two loners finding company – though it’s slow pacing and technical issues make it hard to stay engaged with. There are strong moments where it succeeds in instilling wonder, but those moments get reduced when the audience can see the cracks in the spectacle. The BFG is not perfect, but thankfully it’s not devoid of Dahl’s delightful inspiration.

Final Score: 2.5 out of 5

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