The BFG is something of a wondrous anomaly coming from Steven Spielberg. On the one hand, it is about as inventive and beautiful as any other family-friendly Spielbergian fantasy. But on the other, it sort of farts all over the basic framework of a Spielberg film’s gentility.
And I mean that literally – there are multiple fart jokes in this movie, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, which explains the film’s more unsavory moments, even if doesn’t forgive them. Of course, that’s no reason to disqualify the film, which is always lovely and occasionally wonderful. It’s actually something of a refreshing eye-opener to see Spielberg, he of the classy directorial old guard, to casually dip into scatology. But it is symbolic of the film’s relative discordance with itself. It wants to be a flawless classic and an imaginatively transgressive lark, and ends up somewhere in between.
This is the final film written by Melissa Mathison, who most famously collaborated with Spielberg on E.T., and 34 years on, the results are uncanny – there are strokes of pure wonder and imagination here that could never be derived from anyone other than this particular writer-director collaboration, with outsized storybook concepts placed in a uniquely cinematic rhythm by Mathison and rendered with inimitable Spielbergian gloss. It’s when the film inevitably attempts to probe beyond those basic concepts that it loses its footing, ambling about from threat of dark menace to the frivolity of giant flatulence without much context or transition, never finding its narrative or thematic footing.
Without much setup, the story jumps right to the point, with orphan Sophie (relative newcomer Ruby Barnhill, capably wide-eyed) hearing no more than a few slight rumblings outside and roaming onto the orphanage balcony before getting swiftly tossed into the sling of a the titular G (giant), who is certainly B (big) and quickly reveals himself to be F (friendly). This BFG is voiced by Mark Rylance, whose motion capture performance defines and highlights everything right about this movie. Why, if he’s so friendly, would he pluck Sophie from the balcony? Well, otherwise she might tell people what she saw, which would put a target on BFG’s back. He means no harm, though the same cannot be said for the bigger, uglier marauders in Giant Country. They eat children – though the film only provides one unseen example of said child-eating and then never offers much in the way of suspense other than loose threats, an oddity coming from someone who winds anticipation as tightly as Spielberg. BFG is a dream consumer…or dream creator. Or both. Again, unclear. The casual haziness with which this film approaches its content and characters is notable; Spielberg seems so glowingly consumed with the physical rendering of Dahl’s mythic notions that he forgets they require context in order to flourish into something more tangible from an emotional perspective.
Rylance, coming off an Oscar win for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, is, with no qualification, flawless in every way. Each passing year reignites the conversation of whether a motion capture performance can be Oscar-nominated, and Rylance brings us one step closer to that reality. His “BFG” is fully realized in both the physical and spiritual sense, as tangible and empathetic as a motion capture creation has ever been. Every gesture is whimsical, every turn of phrase generates a smile. Likewise, the universe Spielberg surrounds him with is vivid and wondrous, the kind of environment where cinematic magic can be conjured. And yet the execution is decidedly earthbound – there’s little tension for these characters, not much at stake from one moment to the next. Spielberg is ever fond of the thin line between dark and light, but here there’s very little darkness to push against, leaving us with a narrative that is agreeable but static, as if The BFG wants to be relegated as a classic purely on its look and concept. It’s unfortunate when only real jolts of life in a Spielberg movie are the fart jokes, but there now exists a film for which that line can be written.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo disc includes numerous making-of featurettes, plus a tribute to writer Melissa Mathison.