By Elias Savada.
Don’t be confused by the branding up front on this new live action/motion capture film from Steven Spielberg. “Disney’s The BFG” is just the way the mouse studio puts its mark on its global empire. That world now includes Giant Country, which may or may not be part of the European Union these days. It soon might be a ride in one of its theme parks. This mysterious spit of land, somewhere near England, is where a gaunt, compassionate, vegetarian runt of a 24-foot giant, the eponymous and reluctantly resourceful Big Friendly Giant, lives with nine ugly, people-eating monstrosities (also his much-larger brothers), who bully and ridicule him. If they want to play catch: guess who’s the ball?
“A Film by Steven Spielberg” is still very much a mark of excellence in this charming and expensive ($140 million) adaptation of the 1982 children’s book by Roald Dahl. Kids were reading it the same time E.T. was playing in theaters. And The BFG is a quite delumptious (Dahl silly-speak for delicious) piece of family entertainment from the 69-year-old director-producer-wunderkind, easily digestible for those 8 and older. Spielberg’s still as productive as ever and his films often end up in the running for best picture nods, including Oscar nominations for last year’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, Lincoln (2012), and 2011’s War Horse.
Spielberg’s output as a Hollywood hyphenate and mini mogul (running Amblin Entertainment) over the last 40 years remains expansive and ever-growing. His more recent works resonate well, but aren’t as seminal as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, and those Indiana Jones popcorn flicks.
Like the very popular book, the heart-warming screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison (E.T., The Black Stallion) ventures into the darker and the lighter side of life. As dark as a restless child stuck in an oppressive London orphanage, rummaging about the nocturnal hallways at 3 AM, or as light as sharing explosive whizzpoppers with British royalty after drinking some frobscottle (more of Dahl’s quirky Gobblefunk), a powerfully gassy beverage, where bubbles float downward.
The story follows Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a precocious, bespectacled 10-year-old, who is plucked from institutional hell by a cloaked figure two-stories tall, carrying a threadbare satchel bag and what looks like an ornamentally-challenged trumpet. Sophie will name him later, after she has been whisked away (in a charming, camouflage dash through the streets) to his earthy lair back in his homeland. Those mean and rather dumb giants, led by Fleshlumpeater (Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), live in the valley below, sleeping under the sod. Quickly, Sophie and BFG become best buds racing about the BFG’s cave home or the nearby scrap heap of a countryside, as the big bad bullies wreak havoc in search of human beans for snackin’ on. Some of these sequences feel like an out-of-control roller-coaster built by Rube Goldberg, reminiscent of the mine cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
And these chases get redundant, although the younger folks in the audience will wail with delight at some of the stooge humor and the oozier moments involving a repulsive looking vegetable called a snozzcumber. Ew!
The task of saving Sophie from the cannybullies falls to the big man and the little girl mixing up some of his collection of bottled dreams. BFG’s been using that trumpet to blow phizzwizards (good dreams) into England’s sleeping children. These reveries are exemplified as a variety of spritely, sparkly, brightly-colored Tinkerbelle-style critters that Disney had licensed to the filmmakers (just kidding).
Spielberg does a master’s job blending the sentimental and fantasy elements, stirring in some corn along the way. Nobody does it better. The gem of the movie, however, is a stunning performance from Mark Rylance in the starring role, a motion-capture feat that outshines Spielberg’s earlier use of this style of animation in his superb The Adventures of Tintin (2011). Rylance, who earned accolades (and a well-deserved Academy Award) for his supporting role as convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies, showcases an incredible ability to balance a likable, good-natured soul with the lonely sadness of a wounded warrior. He does a great job uttering those genuinely funny mangled words. The technical crew did great work on his appearance, but I suspect it was the CGI digital wizards who created such marvelous, expressive, oversized ears. Dumbo is jealous, no doubt. Newcomer Barnhill, discovered during a six-month casting call, is so at ease in her role as the strong-willed Sophie that you would think she’s been acting for years. A natural is born.
When the tale moves to Buckingham Palace, the film’s humor bursts forth, and Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey, but I adored her as the ditzy mother in Shaun of the Dead) plays along in regal fashion.
Spielberg’s longtime creative team (cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, editor Michael Kahn, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and composer John Williams) along with award-winning senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri have created a fascinating, cobblestone street, Reagan-era universe, but now with brighter colors (not in the least muddied by the effective 3-D work). The BFG casts a wondrous spell.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.