At first blush, the director would seem well-suited to adapt a Roald Dahl novel that evokes a deeply bruised melancholy and concerns a young girl’s friendship with a giant. At second blush, it would seem even more perfect that Spielberg would reunite with his E.T. screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, for the project.
And yet what both seem to have missed is that Dahl’s novel is awfully slight. It contains several fun sequences but not much in the way of story. Instead, it is a small masterpiece of tone.
The BFG is a story about longing and loneliness and companionship, where everybody is missing something or somebody. Spielberg and his BFG figure this out in the end, but it takes them a good long while to do so. The film is nearly two hours long (minus credits) — a big chunk of time to devote to a movie that mostly consists of a giant mispronouncing words. Dahl filled that space with dark humor, but dark humor has never been Spielberg’s strong suit, so large portions of The BFG just kind of sit there.
And yet when it works, the whole thing feels as magical as anything in his canon. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if Spielberg has tapped into his childhood brain and is directing from a place that remembers all his fears and hopes from when he himself was 9. So let’s take a look at what's good, bad, and weird about The BFG.
Good: Spielberg and his usual collaborators are all on point
The BFG’s biggest challenge is one of scale. It must feature a normal-size human girl and a giant who’s around 25 feet tall. The two must share the same space and actually have a companionable relationship, but the film must also highlight how far apart they are.
The result is a pretty low-key feat of technical wizardry. Spielberg shot The BFG on special stages, where Mark Rylance (who won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies) could stand high up above young Ruby Barnhill (just 10 years old when the film was shot), or she could crouch down below him. This allowed Spielberg to gain the proper sense of perspective while still letting the two actors play off each other — typically a key element to getting a great child performance.
But Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski also play with perspective in other ways, often shooting so that viewers are peering down at the girl from high up above, or feeling surrounded by giant-size odds and ends. In the film’s lumpier portions — which often consist of Rylance frolicking around and speaking in an invented giant tongue — this visual variety may be all that keeps audiences invested.
Still, The BFG reunites Spielberg with many of his closest collaborators, and even though the finished film isn’t perfect, they all turn in stellar work. After sitting out Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s longtime composer John Williams returns with his best score since that of 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, all wistful and infused with a childlike whimsy. Editor Michael Kahn gives everything room to breathe, and production designer Rick Carter builds a believable world in which humans and giants collide.
But it’s Rylance who truly steals the film. He performed entirely via motion capture, but you can always feel him beneath the layers of digital effects. He gallops around nighttime London. He stoops and scrapes his way into human spaces. He trembles before his older brothers. He intuitively understands how to balance his performance in a way that will achieve maximum emotion and draw kids in. It’s no wonder he and Spielberg are going to be making more films together.
Bad: The film has no real sense of danger
One of the reasons The BFG feels so uninvolving early on is that it initially doesn’t have much of a reason to exist. The BFG spots Sophie (the little girl) observing him as he blows pleasant dreams into children’s rooms through their windows, then absconds with her to giant country. The two become friends, and that’s about it.
And one of the reasons The BFG lurches to life in its final third is that its final third is when the notion of the other giants stealing children away from England and eating them becomes central to the plot, instead of just an abstract, hinted-at threat. (Yes, it’s ultimately a film about how England must stop an invasion of monsters from other shores, which now plays slightly differently than it otherwise would have, given recent events.)
But Dahl’s work always curdled with the sinister, with the sense that childhood was a magical time but also a dangerous time, with new horrors lurking around every bend. Spielberg and Mathison seem reluctant to foreground the giants eating children, so when that becomes the reason for England’s invasion of Giant Country, it feels as if it’s arriving from a different movie entirely. The relationship between Sophie and the BFG is nice, but it struggles to carry the whole movie.
Good: The final half-hour finally hits all the marks the film has been aiming for
Fortunately, the last half-hour of The BFG is quite good, even verging on great at times. Sophie’s day-winning idea that the only person who can help shut down the child-eating giants is the queen of England leads to a very funny sequence wherein girl and giant interrupt the monarch’s morning routine to advise her on how to deal with the giant menace.
This sequence will not appeal to everyone’s taste — it features a long buildup to what ends up being a fart joke — but I appreciated it for the absurdity of the giant’s intrusion not just into everyday situations but into everyday situations involving major heads of state. (It also boasts a great Ronald Reagan reference, of all things.)
But what follows is even better. As the movie enters its gentle coda, it pays off much of the melancholy from its earlier scenes with a sense of life moving forward, of the characters remaining connected by the time they spent together, even as their lives no longer intersect all that much. It’s like the end of E.T., but with more overtones of mortality, especially thanks to Williams’s poignant score.
Bad: The movie feels woefully underpopulated
The BFG may as well take place in a world whose only inhabitants are Sophie, the BFG, and about six other people. Even the other giants — the putative threats to Sophie’s continued existence — seem to only come to life whenever the camera happens to be pointed at them.
Spielberg’s best films, whether they’re popcorn movies or adult dramas, shine when they craft tiny communities that slowly but surely unfurl for the audience. Think of how E.T.’s depiction of suburbia introduces more and more characters until the end of the film feels like an entire little town racing against time and the government. Or consider how even a relatively isolated film like Jurassic Park nonetheless sketches in several different characters (including the dinosaurs!) and their relationships with one another.
The BFG is mostly about two characters, and when it tries to expand beyond that, it struggles to make anybody else interesting. Thus, if you aren’t particularly invested in either the giant or the girl, you might find yourself struggling to care during the film’s lengthy passages where the two characters do little more than goof around.
The weird: The fart jokes
As fart jokes go, the ones in The BFG aren’t bad. In particular, the one featuring the queen — spoiler alert, the queen of England farts loudly in this movie — has a nice release to it, if you will. And, of course, plenty of kids' movies have fart jokes in them.
But kids' movies made by Steven Spielberg — especially those with the loose, open feeling of less hurried kids movies from earlier eras — rarely have this level of flatulence and bodily function humor.
So that’s what makes The BFG’s fart jokes so weird. It’s not that they exist; it’s that despite being a nod to the book, they come and go within the movie as if begrudgingly nodding toward the louder, coarser kids' movies of the moment, then exit just as quickly.
The BFG is at its best when it’s at its most lyrical, or when it’s at its most crude. What’s odd is that it can’t seem to find a middle ground between those two extremes.
The BFG is playing in theaters everywhere. Your kids might like it!