Stars: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement, Matt Frewer, Rafe Spall and Penelope Wilton.
Writer: Melissa Mathison; based upon the children’s novel by Roald Dahl.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Premiered Out of Competition at 69th Festival du Cannes; screened at the Grand Lumiere Theatre.
Steven Spielberg has been open about his adoration for the classic Roald Dahl children’s novel The BFG, of how the 1982 book was standard bedtime reading in his household and how an adaptation has been in development for close to 20 years. He is not alone; the book is a publishing phenomenon that impacted a generation of young readers, just as Spielberg’s body of work is arguably the most fondly favoured American film output of the last half century.
Reteaming with the late writer Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extra-terrestrial) and long time producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, Spielberg at least delivers on his promise to get it made. Unfortunately, the only element of the entire production that inspires any kind of wonder is just how far from a satisfying adaptation the film proves to be, given the potential held by the pairing of these two great storytellers.
The heroine is Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a little girl with big dreams who wanders the halls of her 80’s era London orphanage (looking very Harry Potter-ish, as does much of the film) well into the witching hour. Barely 10 words have been spoken in the film when we meet Oscar-winner Mark Rylance’s not-yet-friendly giant, who abducts Sophie from her bed and takes her to a faraway land. The trauma of the abduction barely registers on Sophie and soon a type of accelerated ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ kicks in. The pair chatter away interminably in the giant’s home at the expense of plot establishment, the now friendly giant instead introducing her to such wonders as The Tree of Dreams and a workshop where he mixes the tree’s pickings to create happy night time visions.
The BFG is the runt of a large band of horribly ill-tempered, one-dimensional giants (just like the ones in Bryan Singer’s dud Jack The Giant Slayer), many times larger and with a cruel hunger for human flesh. Sophie convinces The BFG to come with her to Buckingham Palace, resulting in the film’s liveliest, funniest sequence, and advise The Queen (Penelope Wilton, the film’s best asset) and her offsider Mary (an entirely ill-fitting Rebecca Hall) that the giants are a real threat and a military first strike against them is the best option. Nocturnal kidnapping, the threat of cannibalism and the upside of a tactical airborne offensive all make for a modern family movie, apparently.
The absence of any discernible narrative for a great swathe of the film may not bother the real littlies; colour and movement abound and Barnhill is cutey-pie enough to connect with the tots. On the other hand, parents (in fact, anyone over 10) will be driven to distraction by the sweetness-over-substance approach. The BFG and his clan also speak in a broken ‘pigeon English’-like dialect called ‘gobblefunk’ that is often impossible to understand, ensuring a ponderous 115 minutes of young ones pulling at your shirt sleeve and asking, “What did he say?”
Steven Spielberg has rarely ever let the technology at his disposal do the work for him. Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Jurassic Park, A.I. and Minority Report broke new ground in almost every frame, but Spielberg steadfastly put story first. The BFG more readily recalls his lumbering over-produced misfires 1941, Hook and Always. It also bares witness to just how fallible the director is in this late-career stage; for every great work (Munich; Lincoln; Bridge of Spies), he persists at shoehorning storylines into experiments with CGI and performance capture tech, resulting in stinkers like Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.
The occasionally pretty images captured by DOP Janusz Kaminski and omnipresent orchestral work of John Williams keep demanding that we feel for Sophie and her gargantuan friend, but Spielberg’s erratic tonality, overly-familiar technique and heavy-handed graphics renders what should have been a soaring adaptation of Dahl just plain dull.