The BFG works better as setting and setpieces than it does as a story.
The first half of the film is largely episodic in nature, allowing director Steven Spielberg the opportunity to craft a delightful fantasia built upon the work of Roald Dahl. The world that The BFG builds through motion capture and computer-generated imagery combined with models and sets is quite striking. As befits an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, the film is rich in imagination. The first half of the film often feels like a child in a candy store, wandering with its protagonist from one magical set piece to the next.
It is enchanting in a way that evokes the best of Spielberg’s output, the wonder and imagination that has inspired a whole generation of filmmakers. More than that, Spielberg controls the camera with a deft ease that helps viewers to get a sense of why he is so often copied and so rarely equalled. For its first half, The BFG is pure and whimsical Steven Spielberg. Indeed, the film has a somewhat understated eighties setting, which serves to underscore the sense that Spielberg is consciously reconnecting with his crowd-pleasing blockbuster phase. He does not miss a step.
However, The BFG struggles in its second half once the script tries to impose a story upon these meandering and wandering adventures. Although this second half is very much carried over from the source material, it sacrifices a lot of the whimsy and charm that made the first half so endearing. In fact, although the ending is adapted quite faithfully from the novel, it also feels like a concession to modern big-budget film aesthetics. The BFG is a film that works quite well, up until the point that it chooses to emphasise “big” over “friendly.”
It is very easy to take Steven Spielberg for granted. Spielberg has been working in film for half a century at this point, and helped to define what modern audiences think about cinema. The odds are that any random person in a cinema audience can cite a Steven Spielberg film as a major influence, from Jaws to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park. Spielberg has inspired an entire generation of directors who have imitated his style and even elaborated upon it.
This year alone, audiences looking to see a film borrowing major directorial and stylistic beats from Steven Spielberg need look no further from the box office juggernaut that was JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, continuing its box office reign from December 2015. Those looking for a more low-key example could check out Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special. Speilberg’s stylistic sensibilities have become their own school of film making, most clearly evidenced in films like Super 8.
In the midst of all that, it is easy to forget just how good Spielberg is as a director. The BFG is not an innovation. It is not a radical departure. It seems highly unlikely that audiences and critics will come to regard it as “essential Spielberg.” Indeed, what is most striking about the film is how effortless Spielberg makes it look, how skilfully he can still capture pure unfiltered childhood wonder. There is a lot of technique on display in The BFG, but never in a way that calls attention to itself. The BFG is well-made and well-constructed, without feeling flamboyent.
Over the course of the film, Spielberg constructs a number of impressive shots and structures a number of recurring visual motifs. These are never obvious or laboured, with Spielberg happy to let the film’s imagination carry it along the way. Spielberg is constantly moving the camera through his sets – whether practical or computer-generated – but never in a way that feels dizzying of confusing. The BFG might be in constant motion, but it never loses focus during that whimsical first half.
Indeed, the first half of The BFG plays almost as an excuse for Spielberg to play around with the sorts of tropes and imagery that have largely been absent from his recent work. The BFG is a highly imaginative and energetic film, one filled with the sort of imagery best associated with the films produced and directed by Spielberg during the eighties. One of the most striking early sequences is effectively cast as an escape sequence when the eponymous character flees from London to “Giant Country”, a sequence that evokes the playfulness of films like E.T.
In modern blockbusters, there is a tendency to look upon sequences like these as indulgences. In fact, there are relatively low stakes for the first half of The BFG. When the eponymous character abducts a young orphan named Sophie, there is a recurring threat that she might end up as a light snack for the villainous child-eating giant named Fleshlumpeater, but it never feels like tangible possibility. The first half of The BFG is more engaged with wonder than with tension, more excited by magic than menace.
An early sequence in which the title giant runs through the streets of London feels more like a cheeky game of “hide and seek” than a high-stakes fugitive chase. Later on, The BFG takes a detour into “Dream Country”, wherein its two lead characters attempt to capture dreams and nightmares that grow on the reflection of an old tree. Spielberg skilfully captures the dreamlike wonder of these settings, allowing his characters room to breath unfettered by the demands of the three-act structure or the expectation of escalating tension.
The production design is wonderful, with the creative team skilfully crafting an imaginative world for those giants to inhabit. In many ways, “Giant Country” feels like a dumping ground for forgotten childhood fancy. A rusty old ferris wheel is visible in the background, while giants sleep under blankets made of green grass and hide under umbrellas fashioned from circus tents. The eponymous giant sleeps in a bed made from an old sailing ship, while he serves dinner on an old motorway sign. It is a world worthy of its source material.
Mark Rylance is great as the title character, demonstrating an incredible charm and vulnerability as Roald Dahl’s vegetarian gargantuan. Rylance perfectly hits all of the plot’s necessary comedic beats while still generating considerable sympathy. There is a sadness to the title character that plays beneath his big ears and malapropisms. Ruby Barnhill does good work in the title role of Sophie, although the script seems much less interested in Sophie as a character than as a vehicle to wonder. This works well enough for the first half, when the film is driven by wonder.
However, The BFG runs into big problems in its second half. Eventually, it seems like whimsical adventures and endearing setpieces are not enough to sustain the sense of wonder. There needs to be purpose to this story, there needs to be a climax. There needs to be high stakes and a satisfying resolution. To be fair, this is something of an issue with the source material as well, relying as it does upon a deus ex regina. However, the original story has the luxury of Dahl’s unique narrative voice, while Spielberg struggles a bit with realising the story-driven final act.
Part of the problem with the second half is likely down to cultural differences. Spielberg simply cannot match Dahl’s child-friendly acerbic wit. Spielberg’s sense of wonder can be darker than most give it credit for, occasionally veering into surreal or macabre, but his comedy sensibilities lack the bite that define’s Dahl’s best work. Spielberg has definite comedic chops, but they are a bit broader than the source material here. It is worth noting that the biggest flop of Spielberg’s career was his only straight-up comedy.
In some ways, the structuring and execution of that difficult final act recall an all-too-frequent problem with contemporary big-budget cinema. There is a sense of escalation and rising drama that is singularly ill-suited to the whimsy that came before. Indeed, these rising stakes are interrupted by an extended sequence of cheeky childish whimsy that feels very much at odds with the plot-focused scenes leading up to it and the plot-resolving sequences that follow.
The BFG loses its way in its second half. It tries to become “big” instead of simply remaining “friendly.”