Directed by Steven Spielberg
The BFG looks amazing, it looks brilliant and magical and will have you gasping at times, will have you gazing at the screen with a slight grin and wonderment. Streams will run uphill, dreams will be caught like butterflies. Round doors and crooked windows and beds made from sailing ships, impossible landscapes and breakfast with the Queen of England, The BFG is one of those films that should make an audience gasp in wonderment. The BFG stands with the greatest work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, it really is a testament to his skill and his talent. The world of The BFG is awe-inspiring, it is breathtaking and it is honestly and truly beautiful. However…
There is a disconnect in The BFG. There is something missing. On the one hand it is an honest-hand-on-a-stack-of-Bibles breathtaking piece of art, a technological achievement with few peers. Mr. Spielberg swoops his camera through trees and around giant limbs and fingers, across landscapes of everyday objects as our heroine runs and jumps and swings and hides from the child eating giants. We follow the titular Big Friendly Giant as he makes his way through late night London, all dark blues and tints of black, using a cape and shadows to hide in plain sight from the humans going about their business. It really is an achievement, this film. It really is. I'm afraid that the kind of words I'm looking for to convey how wonderful and magical The BFG is to look at are absent from the English language. The grace of the camera movement is almost ballet-like, the cinematography is effortless and is never showy or pretentious but is never less than stunning. But for all of its technical achievements, for all of its advancements in film making and its evolution of the language of film, for all of its silences and beauty, for all the times the film remembers that art can sometimes be found in the pause between the notes, The BFG is missing… something.
Sixteen years ago watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made audiences believe that people could fly, could sword fight in tree tops. The film and the characters bent physics to their will, everything had a weight and a realness but at the same time was unreal. It was the best kind of magic trick, the one where you have to believe your eyes no matter how much your brain says that Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh are not really running over water, their steps barely making a ripple. The audience walked away from that film believing that everything they had seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had really happened. There were no stunt teams, there was no wire work, there were no computer generated images. There was the real world and there was the world that existed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But, more importantly, there was a beating heart at the centre of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a story that moved the audience emotionally. The technology and choreography and all the dozens of specialists who came together to make Ang Lee's vision come to life, they were serving a story with depth, a story that moved some to tears, a story that spoke to nearly everyone who saw it. In translating a work of literature to film, Ang Lee and his team kept the heart of the story and in doing so had created another piece of art that stands on its own merits, not just as an interpretation of a book.
The BFG is good, it really is. I enjoyed myself quite a bit. I laughed out loud, I was moved at times. But overall, The BFG is not great. And coming from nearly any other director, that would be enough, The BFG would be an amusing film and that would be the end of it. But. But, this is a Steven Spielberg film. And to look over the titles on Mr. Spielberg's IMDB page is to look over the titles of some of the greatest films ever made. It might be unfair to compare a director's current work to their past. But, this is Steven Spielberg. Not his non-union Mexican equivalent.
But what is it that separates Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from The BFG? What is it that makes one film work on every emotional level and the other only achieve greatness as a technological work of wonder? What is it that stops The BFG from becoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? And digging into Mr. Spielberg's library, what is it that stops The BFG from becoming Bridge of Spies or Catch Me if You Can or Jurassic Park or Minority Report or any other of a dozen or so masterpieces. Really, look at his IMDB page. It really is ridiculous the level of entertainment that one man is responsible for. Maybe I was expecting too much. The BFG is not just a new Spielberg film, it is a reunion of Mr. Spielberg and the writer of E.T, Melissa Mathison.
Instead of the film moving organically, each event growing from the last like a tree growing from a seed, the branches being the different story points and plot points and character points, The BFG almost feels like a series of vignettes interspersed with these wonderfully meandering character moments that are the centre pieces of most Spielberg films. The BFG is missing something tangible, something I'll call heart. If it was music, I would say it was missing soul. If it was an Italian dinner, I'd say it was missing garlic. It's tempting to ruminate on the passing of Ms Mathison and the influence that had on the film's production. It could not have been easy to finish the film. But I wasn't there and anything I say about it would just be gibberish that would diminish the life and work of Ms Mathison.
Another problem is, and I feel awful writing this, another problem is John Williams' score. It's obvious and in the audience's collective faces. I don't know if it was mixed too loud or what, but there are moments when the musical cues threaten to drown out the feeling of discovery, when the score takes us out of the film, away from the experience. The man responsible for so, so many of our collective cultural touch points, think the The Jaws main title or the Imperial March from Star Wars or the Raiders theme or any of a dozen other masterpieces. And now think of the moments in those films when the score and the visuals and the actors worked together to bring the audience an emotional truth, those moments when the piece of popcorn entertainment you're watching becomes greater than the sum of all its various parts. A film, at its core, is a Rube Goldberg machine. When all the pieces all come together just right, the audience is rarely aware of one single piece, they are only aware of the moment, of what is happening right now. If the pieces don't come together, the mouse gets away and all you are left with is a burned out candle and some scattered dominos. Unfortunately, John Williams' score is one of the pieces that doesn't work. And, like I said, I feel awful writing that.
Now, after dropping that truth bomb and feeling like I should just highlight it and delete it and pretend that John Williams has not made a misstep, that he has composed a perfect score yet again, let's get to the stuff that works.
This where I once again sing the praises of Mark Rylance. Last fall, when I wrote about Bridge of Spies, I wrote that Mark Rylance "turns in a performance here that will be nominated for all of the awards. He brings a calm centre, an internal strength, a believability…" As the Big Friendly Giant, Mr. Rylance again turns in a singular performance. He steps up to the plate, again, and hits it out of the park, again. Again, someone is leaving the ballpark to find their car sitting in the parking lot with a busted windshield. He is so good, such an amazing talent and presence that his internal strength, his calm centre holds the audience captivated even after the ones and zeroes have rendered him into a twenty four foot giant. The other performances are fine. Ruby Barnhill, in her film debut, is full of energy and charisma. Performing with green screen and in situations with very few tangible props and actors has to be a challenge for the most seasoned of actors. That she is believable as the orphaned Sophie who becomes friends with a giant must say something about her natural talent.
The other giants are never really presented as much of a danger to Sophie, they seem to be more of a threat to our Big Friendly Giant with their bullying. We're told they're eating children, but in an attempt to minimize the darkness of the original story there is little threat, little peril found in the film. The performances are fine, they're serviceable. It's just that the other giants come across as cartoon characters whereas our hero, the Big Friendly Giant, is a fully fleshed out character who the audience believes in.
One of the true charms of the movie that isn't named Mark Rylance or wasn't created using a keyboard and a mouse, is the language of the giants. The mispronunciations, the switching of letters, the slang, it is a gift for any lover of language. That Gobblefunk made it fully intact from Roald Dahl's page to a Disney film directed by Steven Spielberg is a small wonder to be found amongst the technical wonders on display. A touch of a singular human imagination that wasn't lost in the forest of ones and zeroes that brought The BFG to life.