“The Big Friendly Giant”
Walt Disney Motion Pictures
1 hour, 57 minutes
I’m at a bit of a loss at how to approach Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the beautiful misfire that is “The BFG.”
It’s a rare stumble from the man many consider to be the world’s greatest director, living or dead. Even now, in my memory, individual scenes I recall make me smile, which doesn’t really gel with reality since during the actual movie I was struggling to stay awake.
“The BFG,” based on a children’s book from Roald Dahl, tells the tale of Sophie, a wee bit of an orphan who is snatched away from her bed one night by the titular Big Friendly Giant. He takes her home to Giant Country and introduces her to the snozzcumber, a disgusting vegetable that makes up most of his diet, and to frobscottle, the bizarre drink that brings on bouts of “whizpopping.”
Sophie is also introduced to, though thankfully not in person, the BFG’s fellow giants, terrible beasts twice our hero’s size with names like Bloodbottler, Maidmasher, and Fleshlumpeater. While the BFG spends his time collecting pleasant dreams and dispersing them to the children of London at night, the others are the stuff of nightmares. No snozzcumbers for them, they subsist upon “human beans,” mostly children. Though the BFG is bullied by his giant brethren, with Sophie’s help he gains the courage to stand up to them and eventually, with the aid of the Queen of England herself, to defeat them once and for all.
It sounds fine, and my kids ate it up, but I wasn’t expecting it to be such a chore to get through. Spielberg sticks very close to the original text, wisely avoiding a tacked on backstory for either the giants or Sophie. However, the first two-thirds of the film are so lyrical that the audience is kept at a distance. I was never particularly concerned for Sophie’s safety and the BFG’s antagonists seemed less terrifying and more like basic bullies, which was, I’m sure, Dahl’s original intent.
The action sequences feel more like orchestrated acrobatics giving the appearance of danger, but where you know everything’s going to be OK. There are occasional laughs, but mostly the first two acts are sweet and pretty and magical and airless.
It isn’t until the film introduces another actual human character, in this case the Queen, that the film picks up. The last twenty minutes of the film are truly great. The scene where the BFG is treated to breakfast at Buckingham Palace is wonderful — funny and reminiscent of films of an era where the monarchy was an institution to revere and respect rather than ridicule. Dumb as it sounds, the entire theater was laughing when the BFG brings out his bottle of frobscottle to share with the Queen. You know when the farting scene is the best thing in the movie, there’s something off.
The BFG is a big disappointment, not because it’s terrible, but because it’s boring. It’s sad, because it’s obvious Spielberg has a real love for the material. It reminds me of another noble failure by him, 2011’s “The Adventures of Tintin.” Like “The BFG,” when I remember individual scenes and sequences from that film, I think, “Oh yeah, that was really good.” I even bought it last year to show the kids. But watching it? That’s another story. It put me out like a light.
Perhaps the problem is that Spielberg is attempting to adapt material that he loves too much and is unable to put his own spin on. Or, more likely, he’s made the most faithful adaptation possible to material that simply shouldn’t be adapted. Not all books should be made into movies, after all. It’s hard to remember that when we have a story that we love and the technology to make it all come to life.
Mark Rylance, as the BFG, is perfect and embodies the character fully and believably. His performance is spot on, as is that of Ruby Barnhill, who plays Sophie. The effects are excellent, and Spielberg’s longtime DP Janusz Kaminski has imbued the film with a gorgeous, rich color palate.
It’s not the individual pieces that are the problem with “The BFG.” It’s the whole. It lacks energy and, even at under two hours, feels overlong. Luckily, the film ends on a high note, but it’s not enough to warrant a second viewing. And with a Spielberg movie, that’s a rare thing.
“The BFG” is rated PG for some scary moments and brief rude humor.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.