Spielberg’s version of Roald Dahl’s The BFG gives us a wonderful giant and some nice imagery of dreams in glass bottles. Beautiful, but also slow and simple. The tension and danger that is often present in Dahl’s books is put to the side here.
Simply the name Steven Spielberg raises a lot of expectations. When the news came out that he was working on the BFG, after the popular book by Roald Dahl and has been seen before as an animated feature, our mind floats to memories of Spielberg’s earlier fantasy child movies. Will this new one feel like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial? Wil it be more like the messy but inspiring Hook, or maybe a bit more like Tintin? In short: will Spielberg recreate the magic that we have felt before? The BFG is typically Spielberg in that it carries his good and bad sides. Yes, the BFG is often beautiful, but also very slow and sentimental.
Mark Rylance is a perfect giant and he carries the film on his shoulders. He is messy, expressive and scatterbrained, but with a heart of gold. Rylance, who won an Oscar for his taciturn spy in Bridge of Spies, is a chameleon and his giant is totally different, very expressive in his emotions and a bit pitiable. He knows exactly what to do with Dahl’s wordplay.
Little Sophie, though, is not that interesting. The actress Ruby Barnhill does her best and plays her role with a child’s passion and honesty, but she doesn’t have much more to do than exclaiming surprise, again and again. In the first scenes she sounds like she is reading from a fairy tale book and it makes her a standard child in a fairy tale, and a hollow character. But, the giant and Sophie together have a good connection.
The film could have taken more inspiration from the animation from 1989, especially because that one had more tension. The fun thing about Roald Dahl is that he combines comedy and beauty in an exciting way with ugliness and danger, and in Spielberg’s version the weight lies on the beauty, making the story in the end less interesting. Consequentially, the BFG is a typical Christmas movie, released at an odd moment in the year. You could place it among films like Hugo and those by Zemeckis: The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol.
Visually, the BFG fits in the same row, with the romanticized images of London where at night everything it lit up by yellow lanterns and the moon, and the quirky fantasy world of the giant’s house. Clearly, a lot of attention has been paid to the special effects, from the floating gray neck hairs of the giant to the dreams in glass bottles and the snotty cucumbers. Sophie keeps walking around with her mouth open, and doesn’t have more to say than wow and look. Still, you get the feeling that you’ve seen these things before. The giants, for example, look a lot like those from Jack the Giant Slayer. We keep stopping at these imagines while the story creeps forward very slowly.
The attention Spielberg pays to the effects is lost on the story. It isn’t exciting enough. Halfway through the film you’d wish that Sophie and BFG would stop talking and have an adventure. Thankfully, the film turns around in the second half when the two go on a hilarious journey to the Queen of England. Some welcome British comedy wakes me up again, especially when the BFG crawls through Buckingham Palace for some English breakfast. Honestly, this saves the movie, but it almost comes too late. The climax then ends things very quickly. Suddenly, all the problems are solved and everyone is happy, while any tension has been skipped.
Lovely to see and simple in its emotions, the BFG is better suited for Christmas. The performance by Mark Rylance as the giant should be seen and there is enough humor to stay with the story. But don’t expect a masterpiece.