The phrase “fun for the whole family” is bandied about so much when it comes to any sort of family movie, that it seems almost mandatory to included it in the marketing, at some point. Of course, it’s a super-broad generalization that still not only assumes modern families are still of the Norman Rockwell variety, but also that parents will love what their kids love, which used to not always be the case. Over the past decade or so, studios have gotten much better at crafting movies that literally cater to this oft-uttered mantra of “fun for the whole family,” with wholesome jokes for the kiddies and a few subtle jokes for the parents thrown in as well. With that being said, I was somewhat surprised that director Steven Spilelberg‘s The BFG is so emotionally one-note, (and one-sided), despite being visually remarkable.
I was hoping that Walt Disney Pictures‘ The BFG would mark a return to the true Amblin brand of the 80s, a big, fun, gigantic adventure like E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially since he reunited with E.T. writer Melissa Mathison on this adaptation, before the writer sadly passed away in November. Admittedly, I have not read Roald Dahl’s book, so I was going into the screening rather blind, except for the trailers I had seen, but The BFG is just not quite what I expected. Then again, in hindsight, I had no idea what to expect in the first place. While it certainly can be fun and whimsical in certain places, it plays much more heavily towards kids than I originally thought.
Sure, Roald Dahl’s original novel The BFG was most certainly a children’s story. I was certainly expecting these elements in the friendship that grows between young orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) and this big friendly giant (Mark Rylance). Sophie’s early interactions with The BFG, and his desire to protect her from the other, more vicious giants is all quite charming and lovely, and the performances by Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance are simply wonderful throughout. From what I understand, the story is rather faithful to the original book, aside from aspects of the ending. Still, even with all of that being said, it may even have been “too faithful” an adaptation.
While the movie isn’t excessively bloated at 117 minutes, a good chunk could have been lopped off by cutting a scene that seemingly only exists to get the children to laugh. Penelope Wilton plays the Queen of England, who, through some strange circumstances, ends up meeting young Sophie and The BFG, and treats them to a hearty breakfast at Buckingham Palace. This scene does exist in the book, sure, but in the movie, it’s a good 10 or 15 minutes long, and does absolutely nothing to advance the story. Yes, there are some funny bits within this elaborate sequence, but once it’s all over, it’s immediately clear that it just wasn’t integral to the story. Maybe I’m being too hard on this sequence, but I honestly thought I’d never see Steven Spielberg directing what ends up being an elaborate, 10-minute fart joke.
Despite some of the strange choices made in this movie, including numerous plot holes that just get left unresolved, Steven Spielberg still proves he has a deft eye for discovering unknown talent, and the visuals are simply gorgeous. With only a few episodes of a British TV show entitled 4 O’Clock High under her belt, Ruby Barnhill makes a wonderful feature film debut as the precocious and strong-willed Sophie. Fresh off his Oscar win for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance delivers another powerful performance, this time through motion capture, as the giant, who is actually the smallest of all the other behemoths in Giant Country, earning him the nickname “Runt.” While there are nine other giants, the two most prominent are Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) and Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), who all look amazing on the big screen. It’s rather amazing watching the young human Sophie navigate through Giant Country, only to see that the rest of the giants actually dwarf BFG as much as he dwarfs her.
I’m still not quite sure how The BFG will fare at the box office. Based on the screening I went to last night, the young children in attendance seemed to be having a great time, so that could certainly bode well for this movie. Young Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance are certainly a pleasure to watch, and director Steven Spielberg’s visual aesthetic for this gigantic world is certainly remarkable. Still, like most of his recent movies, there’s just something intangible that seems to be lacking. I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it may be, and while I still think that there is enough here to warrant seeing The BFG on the big screen, since it can be a lot of fun in certain places, but it just isn’t terribly engaging overall.