Our eyelids flow in the same direction as the Frobscottle bubbles in Steven Spielberg’s paperweight adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved The BFG : down. All the chartreuse-tinted whizpopping, electric neon dream-wrangling and slime-smelling snozzcumber buffets in the land can’t ameliorate The BFG’s nominal narrative offerings. Though Spielberg admirably ditches the chaotic whirligig of headache-inducing parade of non-stop action that defines much modernized children fare for something less expository and more steeped in otherworldly awe, his knack for forging wonder has receded like the gums of a past her prime monarch leaving us with a rather unremarkable, but ceaselessly shiny, icon of 21st century nostalgia pop art.
Wheeling and dealing Dahl’s 1982 short story into a technically impressive display of motion capture’s far-reaching capabilities, Spielberg’s 30th feature film arrives in impressively manufactured cinematic form but the vast limitations at play in the plot department inhibits it from blooming into a thing of great imagination and keeps our emotional investment an arm’s reach at bay. Each scene stretches forth unreasonably, occupying twice as much temporal capital as it ought. What could exist comfortably in four minute form stretches onto ten or more minutes on a regular basis, making for a film that seems not unlike a collage of deleted scenes, kneaded and stretched like Mike Teavee after the Chewing Gum room. The result is similarly structured: harmless and implausibly thin.
Spielberg’s refusal to make blind leaps of faith with the The BFG proves its biggest downfall and this is in large part due to the underwhelming but nonetheless faithful script from the late Melissa Mathieson. Mathieson claims responsibility for past works the likes of The Black Station, E.T., The Indian in the Cupboard and Kundun and her latest feels like a pastiche of these former offerings: a similar brand of outdated family-friendly frolics through innocuous cinematic landscapes that pose little risk and wrap up in a pretty pink ribbons. Without sidetracking from Dahl’s source material or allowing for Spielberg to employ his preternatural mastery of visual storytelling oomph, Mathieson’s gentle massaging of Dahl’s story feels overly careful and irritably unassuming, though she does take hostile command of Dahl’s wonderfully silly verbiage.
As the titular Big Friendly Giant, Mark Rylance (who won an Oscar just last year under the command of Spielberg in Bridge of Spies) wields Mathieson’s appropriation of Dahlisms to endearing effect. His convoluted cadence and hiccuping pronunciation are as bright a spot in the film as his exercise ball-sized eyes which sparkle with an impressive transference of humanity rare – even in these accomplished days of motion capture work – to the realm of next-wave animation. Though some of the size-displacement between the giants and human beans can look unconvincing and under-cooked at moments, the character creation accomplished by Weta Digital is top notch; another evolution of the magical craft they’ve been perfecting for years.
For the abundance of pacing problems germinating The BFG, Spielberg wastes little time getting the ball in motion when precocious orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) spies the BFG padding through the sleepy London streets during the what she refers to as the witching hours. While the rest of the city dozes, Sophie’s discovery leads to her capture as the BFG snatches her before she’s able to squeak and squeal and unveil his existence to the locals. With a few well placed steps that keeps him obscured from the odd nighttime passerby, he whisks her away to Giant Country, an ancient sanctuary where timeless giants nap between feasts.
Ameliorating himself to Sophie, the BFG schools the kind kiddie in giant culture. Although the BFG himself is a peace-loving, dream-blowing, jumbo softie, not all giants are so amiable. The way-more-behemoth Fleshlumpeater (an unrecognizable Jemaine Clement) for one is dead set on devouring human beans and he and his not-so-merry band of bulky followers are custom to plucking children from their beds for an altogether different reason. The BFG’s narrative finds little more to explore beyond the triangulation of Sophie, Fleshlumpeater and the BFG and resultant story as spinning plates does not inspire much confidence nor demand much attention.
Spielberg unearths the occasional quiet majesty with the contemplative nature he’s adopted telling The BFG. His mediation on friendship, bullying and the delightful mystery of dreams is thematically sound but nonetheless hollow. His dreamy parable is lacking complexity or nuance, which makes the big friendly message easily digestible for children but trite for us adults at watch. The film lays in harsh need of a whizzbuckler or five to zest up the filmic juices and shock our attention back to the screen and this are notably missing. This is especially pertinent in a film that is as consistently twilit as this one shot by long time collaborator Janusz Kaminski who employs his dusky lightning to lull us to a snoozy state.
At a whopping 117 minutes, The BFG is almost offensively brash in its mismanagement of time and with so few plot threads, its movement from one (minor) tidbit to the next can stretch into movie-time infinity, making the film’s resemblance to big budget melatonin that much more acute. John Williams’ over-the-top score is the sentiment-peddling icing on the cake; a frilly, pensive boxing to the ears that is more adept at informing the intended emotionality of the piece than actually inspiring any of it. The heavy-handed pour over of whimsy and childlike innocence is arguably too inclusive. A handful of flatulence-fueled gags only makes matters worse.
CONCLUSION: Regardless of The BFG’s big-heart, handful of winning performances and across-the-board impressive technical marksmanship, the grueling, threadbare nature of its story marks it as one of Spielberg’s least inspired and most exhausting efforts to date.