There’s a scene about three quarters of the way through The BFG that is quite simply spectacular; it’s the best scene in the movie. The audience I saw the film with was totally engaged. They were laughing. They were groaning in anticipation of a joke so well set up that a couple of kids were jumping up and down in anticipation. It’s funny, it’s somehow both charming AND crude, and it’s the one time in the movie that anyone is having any fun. Aside from that one scene, Steven Spielberg’s new film, adapted from the book by Roald Dahl, is indeed B, F, and G: Boring, Forgettable, and also Gorgeous.
The BFG is the story of Sophie, played admirably by newcomer Ruby Barnhill, an officious if not precocious little girl who lives at an orphanage. One night, while everyone else is asleep, she witnesses a giant (a performance-captured Mark Rylance) walking the streets of her town. He notices that she sees him and, to stop her from telling tales about a giant, he whisks her away to Giant Land (which is a place that sounds like it’s full of giants, but it’s not). Sophie is, of course, not happy about her new surroundings, but soon enough Stockholm Syndrome sets in and she’s more interested in hanging out with her new BFF, The BFG, than she is in escaping.
To be fair, The BFG (big, friendly giant), wonderfully played by Rylance, is a naïve, gentle character. He speaks in an odd dialect that turns words around on themselves. ‘Swashbuckling’ becomes, ‘buckswashling.’ A “disastrous catastrophe’ becomes a, “catasterous disastrophe.’ And in one memorable scene that, at least to a studio executive, might imply some shared-Roald-Dahl-universe building, ‘scrumptious’ and ‘delicious’ becomes ‘scrumdiddlyumptious.’ This giant is thoughtful and kind. He’s concerned not only for his own safety, but for Sophie’s as it turns out he’s the runt in his tribe of giants. The others are bigger and meaner and stupider. They’re also blood thirsty and mock him mercilessly for his size and taste in vegetables and they are surely to want to eat Sophie if they find out she’s there.
BFG is also a dream catcher of sorts and takes Sophie on a quick jaunt out to a…well, a dream tree? I guess? There’s an extended sequence here with BFG trying to catch some light as it swishes and flits around. Sophie prances around through the forest area also trying to catch some of this light. Apparently the lights are dreams and they all come to this one tree and BFG catches them because…I don’t know. Once caught, BFG is able to combine them and create his own dream concoctions that he can then give to people so they have specific dreams. That bit of business is kind of interesting in as much as it’s a metaphor for inspiration and filmmaking. But it’s also quite vague as well. It’s all very pretty, but it takes up a big chunk of the film that left me a bit puzzled and, if I’m being honest, kind of sleepy.
Puzzling and kind of sleepy is not a bad descriptor for this film. It’s beautiful to look at and the performances are quite good. There are fun turns here by Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, The Town) and especially Penelope Wilton as Queen Victoria (you’ll remember her as Shaun’s mother in Shaun of the Dead). I think what’s lacking is the script or, perhaps, the source material. I’ve never read The BFG, so I can’t tell you what parts of the book are included, what’s left out, what’s made up out of whole cloth. What I can tell you is this doesn’t feel like enough story to justify two hours of screen time. I feel like there’s a really good 30 or 45 minute version of this story, but instead we get long scenes where not much happens (like the aforementioned flitting through the woods) or, to bring it back to the best scene in the movie, a really fun and engaging scene that has almost zero to do with the plot. What little narrative momentum there is stops dead in its tracks for what felt like a good 10 minutes. It’s puzzling to me that more attention was not paid to fleshing out who BFG is and what he’s all about; he’s the titular character, after all. It’s clear that he’s been capturing dreams and making these dream concoctions for quite a while (his house is full of them), but why? What function does this serve in his daily life? I have no idea. The dream stuff certainly comes into play in the plot machinations that get us to the end of the story, but I was left wanting more from this part of the movie. Well, less flitting and chasing, more about who this guy is.
I also could have used more scenes like the aforementioned best scene in the movie. Regardless of whether that scene stopped the film dead in its tracks, it was entertaining as hell. It sort of reminded me of one of the great sequences in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where the plot sort of stops, just so we can explore whatever new room we’re in. That stuff is fun and this move needs more fun.
This film is also leaving me with a big question mark next to Steven Spielberg. He’s been in kind of a slump recently. His last five films were Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies. With the exception of Lincoln there’s a lot of mediocrity on that list. Rylance was the best part of Bridge of Spies and I dare say he is the best part of The BFG as well. Spielberg’s got two films in pre-production right now. It looks like The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara will shoot first. It’s a political/historical film set in the 1850’s which will star Rylance and be scripted by Tony Kushner. The other is Ready Player One adapted from the book by Ernie Cline. It will also star, you guessed it, Mark Rylance. Under normal circumstances I’d be pumped for both. Kushner wrote Munich which is an underrated masterpiece and Ready Player One is a fantastic book. I just hope Spielberg can get his groove back.
Overall, I’d say The BFG is to be avoided. There were a lot of restless children in my theater. It’s a stunning work of visual artistry. The performance capture technology just keeps getting better and better. Rylance’s work is fully realized and it’s pretty seamless. But stunning visuals and some good performances just can’t make up for a film whose script is too thin. The BFG opens in theaters on Friday, July 1st.