MOVIE REVIEW: The BFG

(Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios via wdmsfile.com)

“THE BFG"-- 1 STAR

Every great director has a worst film.  Come and meet Steven Spielberg’s dullest lemon and worst dumpster fire.  “The BFG” is a victim of two uneven halves populating a single film.  It is difficult to downright hate the movie.  The intention is there.  The Roald Dahl source material is beloved and respected, but this is worse than “The Lost World,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” or “Hook.”  Go ahead and start making your snarky substitutes for the BFG acronym.  Your submissions are warranted.

Discovered unknown Ruby Barhill plays the lonely orphan Sophie, roaming the corridors of a dated London orphanage.  She is a smart insomniac child who reads her copy of “Nicholas Nickleby” and muses on the street sights out the window after hours when everyone else has gone to bed.  One night, during the witching hour, Sophie spots a large cloaked individual that is too tall to be an ordinary man.  The creature mysteriously blows a long horn into peoples’ windows before realizing he’s been spotted.   With his cover blown, the man snatches Sophie out of the window and speeds her out of town and over the shores to mythic Giant Country.

The fellow (Mark Rylance) introduces himself as the BFG, or Big Friendly Giant, to his new prisoner.  He speaks in an uneducated language of mixed-up words and pronunciations, which tries patience and fails to aid him getting many points across.  His humble passion is to create and deliver tailor-made dreams to the rooms and minds of children.  Smaller than the true giants, BFG refuses to steal from humans or eat them.  The other giants, led by the 50-foot-tall Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), bully the runty BFG for his lowly existence.  BFG takes it upon himself to protect Sophie from their hunger for humans, leading to fast friendship for the two.

The film peaks with a dazzling and beautifully-realized excursion to Dream Country (the one scene worth the 3D price).   There, wisps of dreams drip down from the aurora borealis in the night sky and through the leaves of a great tree to the misty meadow floor.  The BFG and Sophie catch these magical components that the giant later crafts in his workshop.  When the threats of Fleshlumpeater and his cronies endanger Sophie and, moreover, the general public, the girl convinces BFG to confront Queen Elizabeth herself (Penelope Wilton) and enlist her power to rid the country of the evil giants.  After building much whimsy, what follows is a cockamamie encounter towards a rushed climax that strains even the most devout and open-minded loyalist for fantasy.

Faithful and imaginative as “The BFG” may be, the proceedings lack contagious inspiration that should come from a film of this intended caliber.  Other than “whizpopper” humor, the slivers of cuteness present are ineffectual and the intended themes on dreams are lost in yawns.  The silliness misses any chance at meaning.  The film is too ridiculous to be approachable and too bizarre to be endearing. 

Most of the technical aspects of the artistic filmmaking are on point, just as expected with Spielberg’s prowess and reputation.  These areas are rarely his weaknesses.  His go-to cinematographer/editor team of Janusz Kaminski and Michael Kahn compose every shot to orderly 3D perfection.  One unexpected disappointment is the slight and insignificant musical score from master composer John Williams.  If there was ever a screen creation that needed a memorable theme to crawl in your ear, build remembrance, and join the ranks of “Harry Potter,” “E.T.,” and other Williams greats, it was “The BFG.”  An impact like that is sorely missed.  

One of the redeeming merits of “The BFG” that merges technical savvy and acting is the outstanding performance capture work from recent “Bridge of Spies” Oscar winner/thief Mark Rylance (still sour about Stallone).  The technology has vastly improved in the dozen years since “The Polar Express,” through the Peter Jackson J.R.R. Tolkien film and peaking in the recent “Planet of the Apes” reboots.  Rylance’s soulful eyes and benevolence emote through the pixels quite well.  His presence and scale is convincing on screen and his personality fits this simpleton character.

The gravest mistakes for “The BFG” are the storytelling choices that split the movie right down the middle.  Different audiences will have a different half they gravitate towards.  The planned astonishment in the first half is either immensely boring or subtly endearing.  Likewise, the cheeky comedy of the second half is either just what the doctor ordered after the slow first half, or it feels misplaced and stupid from the shades of wonderment built from the beginning.  This reviewer’s votes are for slow and stupid. 

Spielberg tries for magic and mystery in the first half, which is a departure from Dahl’s constant humor level in the book.  The director makes better epics than comedies and the scope was here for a grand one.  That introductory half has world-building details and methodical character establishment that plays better and richer on the written page than on screen.  When the signature silly playfulness does show up in the third act, it feels shiftless instead of accurate to Dahl because of Spielberg's first half mood choice.  He should have resisted his "E.T." M.O. to loosen up and stick with all humor, or he should have stayed with the reinvented sense of awe all the way to the end.  Even then, with either path, it’s not clear this whole thing would have worked.

LESSON #1: IF YOU HAVE STRICT RULES FOR SOMETHING CALLED “THE WITCHING HOUR,” DON’T BREAK THEM—Get to bed and stay in bed.  Read more Dickens.  Oh wait.  You have insomnia?  Too bad, read more Dickens.  Follow the rules and this movie ends before it starts.

LESSON #2: OK, WE GET IT.  BEING AN ORPHAN SUCKS—The most overused origin trope in the fantasy playbook gets its number called again with no new material.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a hard knock life.  We heard you beating your dead horse.  This flaw is on Dahl.

LESSON #3: FARTS ARE ALWAYS FUNNY—In the iconic words of Larry the Cable Guy, “I don’t care who you are.  That’s funny right there.”  Farts are literally and figuratively magical in “The BFG.”  They are a sign of happiness and shouldn’t be frowned upon.  Sadly, the concocted flatulence elicits the only buoyant laughs in the entire film, cheap ones at that. 

LESSON #4: GIANTS ARE NEVER FUNNY—Tell me.  Other than thin maybes for Andre the Giant’s Fezzik in “The Princess Bride” or Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid in the “Harry Potter” franchise, has there ever been a noteworthy funny giant in a movie?  Yeah, I couldn’t think of one either.  Those two and the BFG are charming, but hardly funny.

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