You’d think that the combination of Disney, one of the biggest and most beloved movie studios in the world, Steven Spielberg, one of the most beloved and well-known movie directors in the world, and Roald Dahl, one of the most beloved childrens’ book authors in history, would create a surefire recipe for success at the movies. Strangely though, despite the enormous popularity of the source book, The BFG was a box office flop this past weekend, ultimately failing to generate interest in many moviegoers, despite the huge pedigree of people behind it, and the lucrative Canada Day/Independence Day long weekend.
What’s worse however is that The BFG is actually a rather good movie, and one that deserved more attention than it got in its opening weekend. It could easily be perceived as being a cult classic in the making among today’s younger viewers when they become adults, similar to another Roald Dahl film adaptation from the 90’s, live-action/stop-motion hybrid, James and the Giant Peach, another movie that found much love with viewers later, despite bombing at the box office in its theatrical release.
Spielberg’s panache for thoroughly enchanting family films is on great display in The BFG, which adults can appreciate for its faithfulness to the source story and great production values, while children will absolutely adore the lovable characters and fun tone. The BFG will likely stand alongside The Nice Guys as one of this Summer’s under-the-radar movie highlights, and while it’s certainly not Spielberg’s best movie, and predictably doesn’t compare to the grand, Oscar-worthy scale of last year’s Bridge of Spies, it’s a charming and memorable modern fairy tale movie that kids and adults can both highly appreciate for its sheer, unyielding charm.
Like the source book, the cast in The BFG is pretty small, though exceptionally chosen. Most of the movie revolves around the unlikely friendship between Sophie, played by cinematic newcomer, Ruby Barnhill, and BFG, or, “Big Friendly Giant”, played by Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies veteran from last year, Mark Rylance. A huge part of why The BFG is such a lovable experience is thanks to these two actors. Barnhill’s Sophie is independent, smart and always speaks her mind, making her a very enjoyable child protagonist that is never daunted by the incredible scale of the world she finds herself in. It’s genuinely hard to believe that Barnhill has never been in a movie before, since she makes one of the most endearing child protagonists to hit the big screen in quite a while, deftly balancing being assertive with being likable.
Likewise, Rylance is the perfect complement to Barnhill, being intriguing, innocent and even lovably tongue-tied, as he constantly mis-pronounces words like a small child, despite being allegedly as old as Earth itself. The interplay between new performer, Barnhill and highly accomplished stage and screen performer, Rylance also creates an added appeal to the dynamic of The BFG’s lead characters, adding authenticity to their energy levels and states of mind. Rylance has enormous range as an actor, which is one of his biggest strengths on stage and screen, and that allows him to make his BFG simultaneously child-like and world-weary, the runt of a larger-than-life world where he’d rather subside on a disgusting vegetable called a Snozzcumber than eat children with the rest of his fellow giants.
The other giants in the movie consist of a group of man-eating titans that especially prefer children, with them all referring to people as, “Human beans”, and secretly venturing into the world to steal and devour people, just as BFG sneaks into the world to help spread dreams and good cheer, unseen. The giants are led by the biggest of the lot, a 50-foot thug called Fleshlumpeater, played by a largely unrecognizable Jemaine Clement, who also happens to be the main tormentor of BFG. There are several other giants, with the most recognizable name behind them being Bill Hader as Bloodbottler, but we also have Maidsmasher, Bonecruncher, Gizzardgulper, Childchewer, Butcher Boy, Manhugger, and Meatdripper, who, like Bloodbottler, basically only exist in the background. It might have been nice to give a little more personality to the other giants, since they are one-note thugs, and even Fleshlumpeater never deviates from that simple direction, even though Jemaine Clement’s antagonist performance is at least a tad more noteworthy.
Still, even if the under-developed villains are a missed opportunity when it comes to making the movie better stand out from the book, the small-scale cast, which expands in the latter half of the movie (and I won’t spoil how, if you’re unfamiliar with the source book), is still brought together wonderfully by the marquee performances of Barnhill and Rylance. These two are so adorable and charming together that they’re well worth seeing the movie for by themselves. Any other enjoyable character moments simply add to the already big heart.
Spielberg reunited with his fellow E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial writer, the late Melissa Mathison for The BFG, over three decades later, so as you can imagine, The BFG is a pretty enchanting experience. The BFG certainly doesn’t measure up to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial in terms of being a beloved, universally acclaimed classic, but it’s definitely made in a similar spirit, providing an effective, child-like view of a world that seems outwardly dark and unfriendly, but the light nonetheless manages to shine through it, thanks to the charming personalities.
The first half of the movie is where The BFG is at its strongest. This is where the engrossing atmosphere is at its most palpable, and the initial intrigue is at its most potent. The early moments of protagonist, Sophie leaving a semi-recognizable human world to be whisked to Giant Country by The BFG, who is concerned about Sophie being the one child that noticed him, due to a case of insomnia, are downright magical in their execution. This is a movie that quickly ensnares you in its fantastical world, and there’s a special charm to Spielberg’s family movies that feels unique to him, giving The BFG an even greater sense of fairy tale immersion.
It’s unfortunate then that the second half of The BFG isn’t quite as breathtaking as the first half. Some of the magic is lost later in the story, which begins incorporating more outlandish elements that definitely worked better in the source book, which the movie follows very closely, beyond a minor ending change. Fans of the book will definitely appreciate that the magic never completely goes away in this film adaptation though. Even if the initial whimsical momentum isn’t fully maintained in the latter portion, The BFG is still a captivating movie that is very easy to fall in love with, if you still possess the child-like heart and imagination that would allow you to fall in love with these kinds of stories.
Spielberg is a legendary director, so it’s almost redundant to scrutinize his direction all that much at this point. Needless to say, The BFG is wonderfully directed, especially in its opening moments. Spielberg brilliantly brings this modern fairy tale vision to life, creating an experience that balances feeling real and surreal, yet never to the point of frightening or unsettling young children. One could make the case that Spielberg’s fluffy, upbeat direction choices undermine some of the underlying darkness in Roald Dahl’s original book, but that would probably be nitpicking.
Even being an especially bright, chipper version of this story, The BFG is given all sorts of sublime detail and inspired directing touches, making even the obligatory fart jokes seem dignified, and that’s quite a feat! There’s a lot of wonder behind the movie, and Spielberg is constantly doing everything he can to keep that heart beating strong, even managing to play with the multiple dimensions of scale between humans and giants in especially fun, entertaining ways. The heart behind the movie beats strongest in the first half for sure, but even the second half of the movie is difficult to watch without a consistent smile, since, even when it’s not perfect, The BFG’s likability makes it nigh on impossible to truly dislike.
Again, much like Spielberg, it’s difficult to scrutinize the musical compositions of composer, John Williams too much, since Williams is one of the most beloved and well-known movie composers in history. As you can imagine, Williams’ score is once again excellent in The BFG, beautifully punctuating every heartfelt moment with an equally lovable and uplifting music suite. The BFG is the kind of movie that feels so uplifting that it almost feels like the viewers are watching it on a cloud, and a huge part of that great feeling comes from Williams’ wondrous, effortlessly captivating music score.
The rest of the audio work is also generally good, if a little bit dialed down in some of the giant-driven scenes, so as not to frighten children. The sound mixing is still put together well in many places though, where the scale of the giants is captured without ever making them seem truly terrifying, even if some may wish that The BFG was ultimately put together with just a bit more teeth. Nonetheless, Giant Country is a place that you still feel like you could reach out and touch if you really wanted to, with the audio generating the necessary amount of immersion to make the added scale of the giants feel credible, if not truly scary.
The BFG is a hybrid live-action/CGI-animated motion-capture movie, and as much as it’s far smaller in scale in contrast to other recent visually-driven Summer movies like X-Men: Apocalypse or Warcraft, the movie could still stand as one of 2016’s top visual achievements in film. Like I said, the way that Spielberg plays with scale between the giants and the humans, especially the contrast between The BFG and his far larger giant brethren, is excellent, and the giant designs themselves are equally fantastic. The giants’ CGI designs are so highly refined and lifelike that they actually look like real creatures, while also easily capturing their exaggerated stylings from the source book. It’s a delicate balance to make giants that look so fantastical, and yet so believable, but The BFG manages to bring its gigantic creatures to life flawlessly, easily sucking viewers into a world that they’d never believe, were it in the hands of a lesser director and lesser visual artists.
The movie’s immersive charm only gets heightened in the fairly impressive 3D cut as well. Some regions screen The BFG in an IMAX 3D cut, but most any domestic territory here in the Americas doesn’t seem to, instead reserving IMAX theatres for Warner Bros.’ The Legend of Tarzan. Regardless, my screening of The BFG was in standard digital 3D, and I was pretty impressed with the 3D presentation overall. Giant Country really benefits from the added 3D scale, which makes it feel larger and more engrossing to be in, especially in the shots that play with the differences in size ratio between the characters. There’s also a few neat environmental effects that effectively take advantage of the 3D presentation, so the movie really is at its best when viewed in 3D, even though it’s still a visual marvel in many respects when simply watched flat in 2D.
The BFG is definitely more of a James and the Giant Peach than a Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but even if it’s a movie best appreciated by cult audiences, that audience will still find it, and they will love it. I do recommend that family audiences seek out The BFG in theatres as well, where they can best enjoy the visual splendour in full 3D, and simply get their hearts warmed by just how lovable the entire production really is. Overall, Spielberg has certainly made better movies, especially with The BFG feeling like a simple-minded dessert to last year’s especially heavy, stirring cinematic meal of the Oscar-winning Bridge of Spies, but even a lesser Spielberg movie is still several notches above most of the competition in terms of quality.
That’s why it’s pretty baffling that the combined likes of Disney and Spielberg somehow didn’t make a bigger splash at the box office, with the Patriotic Weekend instead being won by fellow Disney-distributed flick, Finding Dory. This also comes as the second surprising box office flop in an otherwise stellar year for Disney, who seem to be the one studio almost perfectly consistently setting the box office on fire this year, between the massive grosses of Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, and of course, Finding Dory, with this and Alice Through the Looking Glass being the only major under-performers.
Don’t let the low box office numbers influence you though! The BFG is a very worthy adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl book, and one that is sure to entertain today’s children for many years, well into adulthood, just as adults can still appreciate how well-made and exceptionally whimsical it is. If you’ve already seen Finding Dory, and are looking for another exceptional family flick to tide you over until The Secret Life of Pets and Ice Age: Collision Course, then this is a great, underappreciated Disney movie that I recommend. It’s not the best of Roald Dahl adaptations or Spielberg movies, but The BFG is a highly respectable offering on both counts, and it’s sure to be a movie that will crawl into your heart and stay there, long after the credits have rolled.
- Barnhill and Rylance are excellent leads
- Exceptional direction and score add lots of immersion
- Superb visual effects that make the world and story believable
- Second half loses some of the magic
- Antagonistic giants are under-developed