Growing up, The BFG was one of my favorite books. It’s been a very long time since last I read Roald Dahl’s inventive story, but I do remember the feeling of joy I got every time I read it. Dahl’s style was so creative and light, the wonder that he produced poured through the pen and onto the page. You didn’t have to catch dreams to be ignited by the wonders of Dahl’s imagination. So you can imagine how excited I was to learn The BFG was finally being made into a live-action feature film (after all, Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has already been made into two films!) and that Steven Spielberg was going to be behind the reins of capturing that magic and delivering it to the masses. It’s with a heavy heart, then, that when I walked out of the theater, their was no delight in the lack of wonder Spielberg and his team had produced.
It can’t be denied that Spielberg will always be one of the most acclaimed directors (and producers) of all time. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Spielberg could do no wrong, crafting masterpiece after masterpiece in a way that proved how magical cinema can be for both kids and adults alike. With E.T., Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park and Hook, to name just a few, there was an aura about Spielberg’s films that can’t be articulated in words. Whether it was a fantasy meant for kids or a deep, intellectual drama, his movies pulled at you with an iron grip and squeezed until your soul was ignited with awestruck admiration. But whatever fairy dust he once had to ignite that genuine power in his movies has sadly waned over the last few years. Though he can still craft an intelligent, heartfelt and genuinely authentic masterpiece, there have been a few that haven’t been able to ignite the imagination like his earlier works, and The BFG is just another item in that oeuvre of waning enchantment.
As focused on in the story of Peter Pan, it’s a phenomenon that happens when you “grow up.” With world experience under their belts, adults just don’t have the same wild-eyed wonder that kids have, but Spielberg was a master of being able to tap into that dormant part of ourselves and flip it on, if only for two breathtaking hours. There was no better opportunity for Spielberg to find his way back to Neverland than with The BFG. But somewhere along the way, it seems he’s forgotten how to do that, how to help us all become kids again. It doesn’t have anything to do with the direction, the acting, the special effects, the cinematography or the score, all of which are still as brilliant and aggressively magical as any of his other films (which makes sense, since his award-winning crew is intact, ready to deliver). What’s missing is Spielberg’s own sense of magical wonder — the heart that beats within the giant, normally on display for the world to see.
The big friendly giant of the title (Mark Rylance, coming off an Oscar win for another mesmerizing Spielberg film), is warm and gentle, an outcast of his race for being so small in comparison to his brutish clan of human-eating brutes. All he wants is to capture dreams and deliver them to children, to help them smile the night away and give them peace and happiness. When Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a young orphan with insomnia, catches the BFG roaming the streets of her city, the giant takes her back to giant country, a mystical land hidden somewhere in the clouds. Like any pairing like this, the two don’t get along at first, but as they learn to know one another, they earn each other’s respect, blossoming into a friendship that will last for a lifetime.
The beauty of that synopsis, though, is lost in the actual film. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it might be, but something interferes in the bond between Sophie and the BFG that isn’t cultivated enough to give us any sort of real, worthwhile connection. Like the snozzcumber the BFG is forced to eat every day in lieu of humans, their friendship feels bland and unappealing, a forced relationship that isn’t nurtured the way it should be. And it’s not because of the actor’s portrayals of the characters, either. Spielberg has always had a knack for finding kids that warm your heart and deliver just the right amount of snark, playfulness and delight, and Rylance gives a brilliant performance, delivering a perfect balance of fear, depression and hopeful joy that the BFG requires. But the script does nothing to help enrich the love between the two characters, leaving them to wallow around in a mindless haze of missed opportunity.
As I mentioned before, though, visually, the film is as stunning as ever. The creativity that went into the production design, cinematography and creation of the actual giants is perfectly captured, right down to how much Rylance actually looks like the BFG from the book before having any visual effects poured over him. And of course, the magic wouldn’t be complete without John Williams’s joyously child-like and magnificent score (something sorely missing from Spielberg’s last film, Bridge of Spies – the first Spielberg-helmed film since Jaws Williams hasn’t scored) that tries its best to pull that wonder and lightness out of each frame. There are even some wildly fun moments, which include the BFG hiding in plain site from the citizens of the city, the hilarious breakfast with the Queen, and the sequences that involve catching and mixing dreams. But the ingredients aren’t enough to pull us into the realm of a new world in the same way E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark did way back when. Spielberg will always be remembered for his cinematic genius, but The BFG, I’m afraid to say, will only be remembered as a dream that could have been brewed into something much more delightful.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include The Secret Life of Pets and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.