I want to open this review with a small disclaimer. You see, as is no-doubt the case for many, Steven Spielberg is the person who made me fall in love with films. Indeed, my earliest memory is of watching Jurassic Park on VHS (at least I assume it was on VHS, it is a very early memory) and since then almost every image from that film has been permanently ingrained on my mind, fuelling my subsequent passion for cinema, blockbusters, and also my unhealthy obsession with dinosaurs. I still really like all three of those things.
Anyway my point is, like every fanboy, I love Spielberg. Of course he’s recently become a bit hit-and-miss, and since the dawn of 21st century he’s only directed a handful of truly great films. Still, even the weakest Spielberg films have something worth championing and shouting about, yes, even the one with Shia LaBeouf and the monkeys
So when I say that The BFG probably sits towards the lower end of his filmography, I mean that as a very faint criticism. While his latest effort may lack the strange, indefinable magic that is so central to E.T, or the sense of wonder that Jurassic Park and Close Encounters have in spades, it is still a charming, entertaining and thoroughly likeable film.
For those who don’t know, it tells the story of Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) a young orphan from London who is captured by the titular BFG and taken off to giant’s country. There, Sophie bonds with the giant (played by Mark Rylance), learning about his way of life, the food that he eats, and his career as a dream catcher.
However, it soon transpires that the BFG is comparatively approachable for a giant, and that he’s also not that big. You see there are far larger, and far nastier giants out there. These giants (lead by Bill Hader and Jemaine Clement) don’t share the BFG’s vegetarian lifestyle, and are always on the lookout for any stray humans to eat. They thus treat the BFG with contempt and cruelty, viewing him as a runt and a soft-hearted disgrace to giantkind. With the help of Sophie however, the BFG plots to finally rid himself of the bullies and simultaneously show the world that not all giants are cannibalistic monsters after all.
It’s a simple story, yet it’s also one that takes a frustratingly long time to get going. I never thought that an adventure story could contain so much sitting around doing nothing. For almost all of the first act, we just watch the BFG and Sophie go through a seemingly endless series of fairly dull conversations. Of course, the whole crux of the story is meant to be their relationship, but did it need to be developed in such a mundane way?
In terms of the Spielbergian oeuvre, E.T is the most obvious reference point here, and it feels more than fair to compare the two. I bring this up, because in that film Elliott and E.T’s relationship is established and developed far more economically and much more entertainingly, through the use of visual storytelling, comedic sequences (like the one where the extraterrestrial gets drunk) and, you know, actual stuff happening that enhances their bond. Here, we just listen to plodding exposition over and over again, with little sense of excitement or narrative progression.
The relationship would have been much more engaging and believable if it developed over the course of an adventure, rather than via an hour of talking before the story could properly begin. Luckily, when the plot genuinely sets in motion, most of this can be forgiven. In the latter half of the film there’s much more of Spielberg’s signature creativity on display. Two set-pieces in particular stand out, one involving the villainous giants searching for Sophie in the BFG’s home, and the other simply revolving around the pair chasing after multi-coloured wisps of light. The former feels like an inventive and energetic cartoon, one which uses the environment in imaginative and dynamic ways. Meanwhile, the light-show sequence, in which the BFG introduces Sophie to the act of dreams catching, manages to make you feel far more connected to the characters than any of the preceding dialogue scenes do. Make no mistake, there’s good stuff here. In fact, there’s even a bit towards the end that actually has a funny fart joke. Yes, fart jokes can be good!
It’s very tempting to say that Mark Rylance is the MVP here, and that’s probably because that is the case. His performance hits every necessary beat. It’s funny when it’s supposed to be, it’s heartwarming when it’s supposed to be, and it’s consistently endearing. Moreover, the physicality of the giant is realized really well. It’s a performance that really demonstrates what the motion-capture process can bring to a character, as it provides a sense of spontaneity, with the giant’s body language and mannerisms being particularly distinct and lifelike. As an achievement in both technology and acting, the BFG himself is a triumph. It also helps that he is one of the least uncanny CGI characters that I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, I can’t quite say the same thing about Sophie. Criticising a child’s performance can often feel a little mean and unfair, they’re just kids after all. Still, Barnhill’s Sophie is really quite annoying, which is odd, because delivering authentic child characters is one of Spielberg’s specialities. It may be lazy to conjure up the looming specter of E.T once again, but that film managed to create child characters that felt truly grounded and believable. There, the children’s interactions never once felt scripted or staged, instead they came across like real, genuine kids just acting and behaving as they normally would. The performances felt much more sophisticated and nuanced, whereas here Sophie feels less like a character that happens to be a kid, and more like a traditional child archetype.
What I mean is that she doesn’t really behave like a child, but instead like an adult’s perception of what a child should be. She lacks any of the detailed behavioural quirks that make kids feel real in movies. It just appears too much like a performance. It’s hard to tell if it the problem lies with Barnhill, or with her character, because honestly she doesn’t have that much to work with. Sophie is just one of those irritating movie kids that’s meant to be endearingly confident, but is instead obnoxious and a little-too perfect. Elliot was flawed. Elliot had weaknesses. He got scared. He got upset. In stark contrast, Sophie is an idyllic angel child who never seems to mess up or show any hint of vulnerability. Come to think of it, even when she’s in mortal peril she barely reacts at all.
My other big criticism is one that I never expected to be making. I’m genuinely shocked that I’m saying this, but I didn’t like the score at all. John Williams is one of my heroes. He has been instrumental to many of the cinematic moments that shaped not only my childhood, but also my later life too. He is a genius, and is unrivalled in the realm of film scoring. And while I can’t expect him to deliver Jaws levels of brilliance every time, I have to say I expected more than this. It just felt like he filled the soundtrack entirely with cues that were rejected from Harry Potter. I’ve listened to it a few times now and there’s one or two motifs that I can pick up, but most of it is really unmemorable and actually vaguely annoying. It’s repetitive and generic whimsical music, and even worse, it never really goes away. It’s almost constantly there and I honestly found it to be quite grating. Still, it’s received a lot of critical praise, which is great. I’m always happy when composers get name-checked and referenced, but I just personally didn’t feel like it was warranted this time.
Overall, The BFG has it’s moments, particularly in the latter half when the actual adventure begins. It also contains its fair share of visual flourishes. Say what you want about Spielberg, but the man knows how to create some truly impressive images when he puts its mind to it, and the dream catching sequences certainly evidence this talent. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel like that key spark was missing. I want to reiterate, I’m not saying every family film needs to be E.T, but I do feel like a good 40 minutes of this was fairly boring and I really couldn’t get attached to Sophie at all.
Yet despite these ostensibly damning criticisms, I would ultimately recommend The BFG, if nothing else because the titular giant himself is a great creation brought to the screen by a superb performance and an expert technical team. As I said, even lower-tier Spielberg is still Spielberg.
The BFG (2016) is directed by Steven Spielberg and is distributed in the the UK by Walt Disney Studios, Certificate PG.