*** out of ****
(for action/peril, some scary moments, and brief rude humor)
Released: July 1, 2016
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jemaine Clement, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Adam Godley
Somewhere, Uncle Walt is smiling. With a Big Fat Grin on his face.
Steven Spielberg, in his first film under the Mouse House banner, has made a movie in the grand tradition of Walt Disney’s live action fables from generations past.
A big budget bedtime story, The BFG continues an invigorating resurgence in non-animated fare by the studio of late (although, like The Jungle Book, this is a lopsided visual effects hybrid). But that renaissance has thus far been driven by adaptations of beloved animated classics with established strengths, outlines, and expectations. With The BFG, there is no template.
In creating this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s fantasy about the bond between an orphan girl and a lonely giant, Spielberg’s addition to Disney’s renewed live action slate has the book’s goodwill to live up to, not a perennial from the studio’s archives.
What he does with it gives us a strong indication of what the Pop Culture Auteur would’ve done with the wizarding world of Harry Potter had he followed through on his initial intent to direct that saga’s first (and least dark) entry. Having John Williams‘ music again sure helps. From a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, this doesn’t possess the overwhelming soul or operatic crescendo of the E.T. script she wrote for Spielberg, but it does share the same heart and yearning for innocence.
The most kid-and-parent friendly movie by Spielberg to date, The BFG (an acronym for Big Friendly Giant) is the rare would-be blockbuster that in no way caters to all four “age quadrant” demos. Never once resorting to crass language, edgy innuendoes or pop culture references in some calculated, desperate attempt to appease teenagers and young adults (who may roll their eyes and check out at the first utterances of The BFG’s Seussical-styled speakery), Spielberg has made a movie not only in the spirit of the book on which it is based, but one that finds its joy in playing directly to the imaginations and hearts of the Pre-K to early grade school children that Dahl sought to captivate.
Along with its silly yet tender content, The BFG is a patient cinematic page turner (not an action packed thrill ride), seemingly told at the pace of a school librarian as she reads to the kiddos all circled around her, in a style that evokes wide-eyed wonder. It’s in no hurry to get where it’s going.
Regardless of how this movie performs at the box office – and in a summer meant for explosions, not heart tugs, likely not well – The BFG seems destined to be a favorite of young families for years (possibly generations) to come, with parents and their little munchkins snuggling up on cold winter weekends or holiday breaks with hot cocoa, thick blankets, and this magical place.
Sophie is a young British girl who’s never had a family or known a home. The BFG is the elderly, sweet-hearted runt of a more barbaric (and comically Neanderthal) race of secret giants. But The BFG has a special talent. He is a catcher of dreams. He’s a wielder of them, too, sharing them with people as they sleep, a benevolent sandman with a paternal heart.
And when the ardent young Sophie spots him lurking one fateful night, the BFG sweeps her away to his forest cottage in the hidden Giant Country, lest his clandestine existence be discovered by a misunderstanding world. In short, it’s the story of two orphans from their respective orphanages who become the first best friends that either has ever had.
The actual BFG (as Sophie has dubbed him; he has no proper name) is a wonderful creation on multiple levels, starting with the gentle, unassuming purity embodied by Academy Award winner Mark Rylance (Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies) and fulfilled by a new standard for motion capture animation (a.k.a. Mo-Cap). Never before has an actor so thoroughly shone through in a Mo-Cap performance, even transcending Andy Serkis’s Gollum and his Caesar of the Planet Of The Apes reboot (the same WETA animation team has come a long long way).
Every thought, feeling, and nuance The BFG gives – every spontaneous reaction, be it a physical or emotional reflex – is so clearly and fully from the spirit, soul and body of Mark Rylance. And what a special, memorable performance it is, with moments of intimate and unexpected vulnerability. It’s a Mo-Cap breakthrough that could be dubbed Emo-Cap, because it captures emotions that I didn’t think were possible.
As Sophie, the adorably proper Ruby Barnhill is both The BFG’s opposite and his match (the fact that she’s a girl and not a boy is, in itself, refreshing). Her sharp, well-mannered, yet strong-willed (and brave) spunk – the kind that might utter a Poppins-esque “Spit spot!” – is the perfect contrast to The BFG, a playful but meek giant whose bruised yet generous heart is matched only in size by, sadly, his acute insecurities and low self-worth.
Self-conscious, too, about his butchered-together English, Sophie’s affection for the BFG tempers her grammar nerdiness (a contrast I actually wish Spielberg would’ve played up in their character and relationship arcs, but oh well). It’s a friendship born of need yet forged with grace. And when it finally breaks out into the real world during the film’s second hour, they cross paths with Her Majesty the Queen herself (with a casting choice that will garner an instant affinity for any Downton Abbey diehard – not the Dowager’s Maggie Smith, but the more genteel and charitable Penelope Wilton).
The look and design of The BFG is a joy to behold, and often a marvel (that pops in 3D, but would be just as entrancing without it). Having a real live girl play against this animated giant actually helps sell the animation, too, as does the stylized design of the BFG’s features.
As if directly addressing nearly every Mo-Cap criticism I had in my review of The Adventures of Tintin, The BFG excels in integrating real actors and sets with animated characters, creatures and worlds at unprecedented levels of seamlessness. It’s still not wholly realistic, but that’s part of the improvement.
By embracing the odd and exaggerated features of these humanoid giants, The BFG makes its world more credible – not less – than past Mo-Cap efforts that have tried to make people photo-real. But most crucially, it’s the ability to see Rylance in every detail that seals it, especially in unguarded moments of deeply felt emotion.
As a craftsman, Spielberg largely (and wisely) limits his “computer camera” to moves that only a real one could make, giving us an experience of more inherent veracity. The lighting is also consistent between the real and the animated, which helps to erase the comped edges joining the two. The result is a more beautiful, classic cinematic language, the kind we expect from Spielberg.
Sure, I’d still prefer an approach that re-sizes real actors and then blends them together (ala the various characters in the Lord of the Rings’ fellowship) over this reliance on digital, or perhaps even a throwback to the fully muppetized creations of Jim Henson’s creature shop peak, but with the degree of advancement seen here that desire is surprisingly mollified. This is as spectacular and effective as motion capture has ever been.
The BFG is not made for all ages, but it is meant for them. It commits to a courageous integrity for something produced at such a financial scale, and that’s exactly what gives it its big-hearted charm. And yet while its sensibility is so unapologetically tailored to the single-digit set, its audience need not be.
Soften your cynicism. Don’t demand that this meet the typical expectations of sensory overload or propulsive spectacle. It may look like that, but it’s not actually like that at all. The BFG is the movie version of a kid. The kid we would all love to be. The kind we’d all do well to actually strive to be.
Well, let it be. And if you do, you’ll be saying along with Sophie, “I believe in The BFG.”