BFG: Spielberg’s Version of Dah’s Novel, Starring Mark Rylance, Lacks the Magic of E.T and his Other Sci-Fi Adventures

The BFG will be released by Disney in theaters July 1. 

the_bfg_poster_spielbergIt is with great regret that I have to report that Spielberg’s new children’s fantasy-adventure, The BFG, is an artistic disappointment.

Disney will release the picture on July 1.

The July 1, 2016 opening marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl, the author of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, both of which have been made into successful Hollywood pictures

This rather impersonal film, dominated (and in some sections overwhelmed) by excessive CGI, not only changed major elements of its respectable source material, Ronald Dahl’s beloved book, but also fails to capture the menace, the magic, and the charm of the original novel.

At the end of the first press screening in Cannes, a colleague of mine remarked, “this film feels as if Spielberg was not on the set,” as if someone else oversaw the production and supervised the editing, which is crucial for such an operation.

On paper, the material seems perfect for Spielberg. Indeed inevitable comparisons will be made to the far superior E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (arguably one of the director’s two or three masterpieces) and to other sci-fi adventures directed by him, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and others.  It is probably a coincidence that the book was published in 1982, the same year that Spielberg made E.T., though this project has been in the works for years.

There is a another, more direct link between E.T. and The BFG: both were written by Melissa Mathison (Harrison Ford’s former wife), who passed away several months ago of cancer at age 65–the movie is dedicated to her.

Before analyzing the film and its thematic and structural problems, I would like to present the basic elements of the tale, which is defined by a minimal plot, sort of a skeleton, over which the filmmaker and is team have sort of poured some very sophisticated visual and sound effects.
the_bfg_5_spielbergMark Rylance, this year’s Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies, plays the film’s titular role.  It’s quickly established that The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is nothing like the other inhabitants of Giant Country.  Standing 24-feet tall with enormous ears and a keen sense of smell, he is endearingly dim-witted and essentially well-meaning and good-hearted creature.  For most of the time, he keeps to himself–as a screen character, is both alone and lonely (which is one of the film’s dramatic shortcomings).

Compared to the BFG, the other giants, like Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) and Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), are twice as big and twice as brutal and scary. They are merciless cannibals, known to be eating humans, while the BFG prefers Snozzcumber and Frobscottle.

the_bfg_3_spielbergVery much in the vein of Spielberg’s other films about children, the protagonist is a precocious 10-year-old, here a girl from London named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill).  In the first scene, Sophie is kidnapped from her orphanage and is transported to Giant Country in a mode that recalls King Kong–BFG holds her in his palm as he flies over London.  Initially, Sophie is frightened of the mysterious giant who has brought her to what she perceives a dreary cave, which it is not, courtesy to a production design that makes the place seem busy and cluttered with all kinds of objects and items, but not particularly visually stimulating,  However,  as times goes by, she begins to realize that the BFG is a kind, gentle, even charming misfit

Having never met a giant like him before, the ever-curious Sophie poses many questions for the BFG, and surprisingly, he responds in direct and honest manner.

Most of the saga is set in Dream Country, where the BFG collects a wide range of dreams before sending them out to children.  In what sometimes appears to be message-oriented lecturing, he instructs Sophie about the absolute necessity of having dreams, even if we don’t always understand their origin, magic, and mystery, and impact on us (This idea is a consistent motif in most of the film made by the auteurist director).

the_bfg_2The tale, again like other Spielberg stories, is essentially about the changing relationship and evolving affection between two social outcasts who initially could have been more different.  An Odd Couple, they are outsiders who, up until meeting each other, have been on their own in the world, living a solitary, isolated, unhappy life.

Their friendship is not as smooth or idyllic as it seems or might have been.  Unfortunately, Sophie’s presence in Giant Country has attracted the unwanted attention of the other giants, who increasingly get more bothersome and violent, manifest in a series of gruesome attacks on the BFG’s habitat.

After an hour or so, we sigh in relief as the story gets of out the confined space, when Sophie and the BFG depart for London to see the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and warn her of the precarious giant situation.

the_bfg_2_spielbergIt’s not an easy or smooth task.  The duo must first convince the Queen and her maid, Mary (Rebecca Hall), that giants do indeed exist. In the end, joining forces, the trio forms a coalition, devising  a strategic plan of to get rid of the giants once and for all.

Spielberg was aiming at making an intimate epic, a movie large in budget, size and scale but still intensely personal and family oriented.  And in moments, but only in moments, the movie achieves that dual goal.

the_bfg_10_spielbergFor most of the time, however, the BFG is big (literally), extravagant, effects-ridden sci-fi adventure, defined by an outsized central character, and ultra-outsized villains, who are faceless, lacking individual personality.



the_bfg_6_spielberg_rylanceA very special stage and screen actor, Rylance plays the BFG as a childish (and childlike) figure, a fragile, gentle soul with clumsy feet clad in sandals, heavily relying on the melancholy look from his deep-set, often sad eyes, and his softly melodic voice, which offers warmth and reassurance in the most trying and scary situations.


the_bfg_11_spielberg_rylanceHis higglety-pigglety cadences and bizarre malapropisms–—“butterflies” become “buttery-flies”, which derive directly from the text, create a strange but compelling sound, which is charming for a while (before it gets too repetitious, like the rest of the picture). There is a touching, lyrical moment, for example, when late at night, he puts Sophie to sleep with reading from her copy of Nicholas Nickleby, but the book and its typeface are so tiny that he needs magnifying glasses.

As for newcomer Ruby Barnhill , who plays the crucial role of Sophie with wide eyes and big eyeglasses, she is precocious all right, but too cute and a bit bland (to my taste), lacking the edgy charam of the young Drew Barrymore in E.T., or for that matter, the perky nature of Chloe Grace Moretz in Scorsese’s Hugo.