November 10, 2016

The BFG (2016)

Orphaned girl Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is at the window of the orphanage in the early hours of the morning, and finds herself kidnapped by a mysterious giant (Mark Rylance) and taken far away to the elusive Giant Country. Fearing she will tell others of his existence, the giant refuses to return her to London. Together they slowly form a friendship, and Sophie discovers his fantastical life of catching dreams and giving them to sleeping children.

The BFG is a 1982 novel by the legendary children's novelist Roald Dahl, and 34 years later it comes to the screen as a big-budget feature film from director Steven Spielberg. What's more, the film's screenplay comes from the late Melissa Matheson, writer of the films The Black Stallion, The Indian in the Cupboard and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. A beloved children's classic adapted to the screen by the writer/director team behind one of the greatest children's films of all time? Talk about pressure to succeed: based on its pedigree The BFG should be remarkable.

Ultimately parts of it are quite wonderful, and other parts are not so great. It is a slightly odd sort of film, like seeing someone in an ill-fitting but expensive suit. The various elements should work beautifully, but instead there's regularly something vaguely wrong about the whole enterprise. Clearly one big problem is Spielberg himself. The director of E.T. has made a lot of films over the past three-and-a-half decades, and the sort of material on which he has focused in recent years feels a long way away from this sort of warm all-ages entertainment. To an extent it feels like solid proof you 'can't go back again'; the film feels less like a Spielberg film and more like an Amblin-produced Spielberg-style film directed by somebody else. There's an edge to Spielberg's earlier adventure and family films that simply is not repeated here. Sophie falls into danger for certain, but there's never really a sufficiently dark tone to make her experiences genuinely threatening.

There is also a weirdly unreal feel to the entire movie, with Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski using a much brighter and more vivid colour palette than I am used to seeing them adopt, and coupled with the motion-captured giants it makes everything feel a little anodyne and artificial. It adds to that sense of feeling overly safe.

Another key problem with the film, and this feels like an odd criticism to make, is that it's arguably too faithful to Dahl's novel. So much of The BFG is wonderful children's literature, but it has always had one of Dahl's weaker conclusions, in which Sophie and the BFG (the Big Friendly Giant) visit the Queen of England to request her help. As a six year-old child I found the ending a disappointment, and was quite surprised to see it replicated with such dogged fidelity here. I think had Mathison developed more of her own story elements she could have kept the elements that worked best in the novel and match them with a stronger narrative.

There are plenty of great elements to the movie. Ruby Barnhill proves to be yet another exceptional child performer - Spielberg has found so many of them over the years - and is an immensely likeable protagonist. Mark Rylance's motion-captured performance benefits hugely from his theatrical experience: he creates a BFG who is heightened and amusing but which also carries a huge amount of sadness and regret. Rylance's acting hints at a huge third-act reveal, but instead the viewer has to make do with a slightly underwhelming second-act explanation instead. The interplay between the two lead characters is wonderful, and to an extent makes up for the shortfalls in the plot.

I remain a huge fan of Steven Spielberg's work, but to my mind this is a relatively minor film to add to his filmography. It is definitely entertaining, but it comes with such justifiably high expectations, and ultimately fails to meet them.

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