The BFG (2016)
(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, made a movie in the grand tradition of Walt Disney’s live action fables from generations past.
A big budget bedtime story, The BFG continued an invigorating mid-decade resurgence in live action fare by Walt Disney Studios (although, like The Jungle Book, this was a lopsided visual effects hybrid).
While that renaissance has been increasingly driven by adaptations of beloved animated classics (ones with established strengths, affections, and expectations), with The BFG — about the bond between an orphan girl and a lonely giant — there was no template.
In creating this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s fantasy, Spielberg’s addition to Disney’s renewed live action slate only has the book’s goodwill to live up to. By the middle of the second decade of the 21st Century, that demographic was marginal at best.
While The BFG never materialized into a hit, either on release or at any time in its home video life since, what Spielberg did with it gives us a strong indication of what he may have done with the wizarding world of Harry Potter. That, in itself, makes it a worthwhile watch, especially when set to John Williams‘ music (who also did the scores of the first three Potter films).
From a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, who wrote Spielberg’s classic E.T., The BFG doesn’t possess the overwhelming soul or operatic crescendo of her previous collaboration with Spielberg, but it does share the same heart and yearning for innocence.
Most would-be blockbusters tend to cater to all four quadrant age groups. This is by necessity as the size of the budget needs as many people as possible in order to break even or make a profit.
The result of that, in most cases, is a family film that ends up having more crass language and edgy innuendoes than you were likely expecting, while also stacked with cheap pop culture references that are shoehorned in awkwardly.
The BFG, despite costing well over $100 million dollars to make (let alone market), doesn’t do any of that.
The most kid-and-parent friendly movie by Spielberg to date, The BFG ditches all of that demographic pandering. It’s never desperate to appease anyone other than children It doesn’t care if people in their teens or twenties (i.e. Hollywood’s most coveted market) roll their eyes or check out at the first utterance of The BFG’s Seussical-styled speakery.
With artistic integrity and the soul of a child, Spielberg made a movie that embraced the spirit of the book, one that finds its joy in playing directly to the hearts and imaginations of kids from Pre-K to early grade school — the very ages that Dahl sought to captivate.
The BFG is not an action packed thrill ride. It’s patient, the cinematic equivalent of a children’s book; silly yet tender, it’s seemingly told at the pace of a school librarian reading to all the kiddos circled around her. It’s in no hurry to get where it’s going, but it boasts a style that evokes wide-eyed wonder.
The summer movie season is meant for big explosions, not intimate heart tugs, so a July 1 release didn’t do this any favors, as the poor box office attested. It’s unfortunate, though, if not surprising that The BFG hasn’t become a favorite for young families since then. It’s a sweet story in a magical place.
The BFG is the kind of cozy fantasy that parents and their little munchkins can snuggle up to and watch together, especially on cold winter weekends or holiday breaks with hot cocoa, thick blankets. Yes, its two-hour length may be a bit too much for children in one sitting, but watching it in half-hour segments could really hit a sweet spot.
Sophie is a young British girl who’s never had a family or known a home. She is an orphan. The Big Friendly Giant is an elderly, sweet-hearted man who, in the secret land where he lives, is actually a runt compared to others. His bigger fellow giants are more barbaric; sort of comic Neanderthals.
But the BFG has a special talent. He is a catcher of dreams. He casts them, too, sharing them with people as they sleep. The BFG is a benevolent sandman with a paternal heart.
When the ardent young Sophie spots him lurking the city one fateful night, the BFG sweeps her away to his forest cottage in the hidden Giant Country, so that his existence won’t be discovered by a misunderstanding world.
In short, The BFG is the story of two orphans who become the first best friends that each of them have ever had.
The actual BFG (as Sophie has dubbed him, because he lacks a proper name) is a wonderful creation on multiple levels, starting with the gentle, unassuming purity he’s given by Academy Award winner Mark Rylance (Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies).
The team of animators that bring his transformation to life are equal collaborators, capturing and amplifying everything Rylance does. The final effect result set a new standard for motion capture animation (a.k.a. Mo-Cap).
Never before has an actor shone through so thoroughly in a Mo-Cap performance, even transcends Andy Serkis’s Gollum and his Caesar of the Planet Of The Apes reboot. The same WETA animation team has done them all, but here they’ve taken it to another level.
Every thought, feeling, and nuance that The BFG gives — every spontaneous reaction, be it a physical or emotional reflex — is 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 honestly didn’t think were possible.
Ruby Barnhill is adorably proper as Sophie, a girl who is both The BFG’s opposite as well as his match; the fact that she is a girl and not a boy is, in itself, refreshing.
Her sharp, well-mannered yet brave, strong-willed spunk (the kind that might utter a Poppins-esque “Spit spot!”) is the perfect contrast to The BFG, a playful yet meek giant whose bruised, generous heart is matched only in size by, sadly, his acute insecurities and low self-worth.
He’s self-conscious, too, about his uniquely butchered English, but Sophie tempers her grammar nerdiness with affection and patience. 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. Penelope Wilton is a perfect casting choice, both for the regality of the role as well as garnering an instant affinity from Downton Abbey diehards (who are legion).
The look and design of The BFG is a joy to behold, and often a marvel. It really pops in 3D, too, but is just as entrancing without it. Having a real live girl play against this digital giant actually helps sell the animation as being more believable, as does the stylized design of the BFG’s features.
I had some rather direct criticisms of Mo-Cap in my review of The Adventures of Tintin, and it’s as if The BFG addresses every one of them. Here, the technique excels in blending real actors and real sets with animated ones, whether they be characters or creatures or entire worlds. The level and quality of seamless integration is unprecedented. It’s still not wholly realistic, but it was (and remains) a significant step forward.
By exaggerating the odd features of these humanoid giants, The BFG actually renders its world as more credible, not less. Past Mo-Cap efforts have tried to make people photo-real, but the work here gets the closest. What seals it is being able to see Rylance in every detail, especially in unguarded moments of deeply felt emotion.
As a craftsman, Spielberg mostly (and wisely) limits his “computer camera” to moves that only a real camera could do; on a subconscious level, that helps make the experience of this digital world feel more real. The lighting is also consistent between what’s real and what’s animated, which works to erase the comped edges that blend the two. In essence, Spielberg maintains a classic cinematic language even as he embraces modern movie magic.
Sure, I’d still prefer an approach that re-sizes real actors and then blends them together (as done for the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings) over this excessive reliance on digital. Better still, I would have loved to have seen a legit throwback to the muppetized creations of Jim Henson’s creature shop. Even so, the degree of advancement here surprisingly mollified those wishes. 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 such a big-hearted charm. Yes, its sensibility is unapologetically tailored to the single-digit set, but that’s also what makes it so winning for anyone of any age.
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, not at all. That’s a good thing.
The BFG is the movie version of a kid. The kid we would all love to be. The kind of kid that we all should strive to be. Well, let it be. Believe in The BFG.
- Steven Spielberg tried to convince Gene Wilder to make an appearance in The BFG. Given Wilder’s iconic turn as Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, Spielberg wanted to have the comic actor pop up in another world within the Dahl universe. Unfortunately, Wilder declined due to deteriorating health. Wilder died on August 29, 2016, two months after the movie’s release.
- One of the finalists for the role of Sophie was Millie Bobby Brown, who would later become the breakout star of Netflix’s Stranger Things.
- In development for over 25 years, Spielberg has said that he wanted to direct The BFG from the first time he read Dahl’s book. It’s fitting that he made it for Disney, too (his first film with the studio), as he felt The BFG had the combination of darkness and light that defined so many of Disney’s original animated classics (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, etc.)
- Spielberg almost made The BFG back in the late 80s, with Robin Williams in the title role, but an animated version of the book came out in 1989 so he set his project aside. Instead, Spielberg and Williams made Hook, which was released in 1991.
- Halfway through The BFG, there is a shot which transitions from the eye of the giant to a sunset, with the BFG walking towards it. This is a re-creation of a shot from (and Spielberg’s homage to) 1989’s animated BFG.
- The BFG is 24 feet tall, but the other giants range from 39 feet to 52 feet tall.
- Two of the BFG’s dream jars are labelled, separately, as “I is naked at work” and “I is naked at wedding”.
- As far as Spielberg Oners go, I refer back to a point I made during my Tintin review; they’re just not the same in a mostly animated world. A lengthy, choreographed Oner may be creative but it’s not as impressive when the elements are predominantly digital rather than practical.