The BFG (2016)

Sometimes a film’s success, regardless of the talent behind it, hinges entirely upon when it drops into the movie-going public’s collective psyche…and it’s safe to say that this one somehow seriously missed the drop-zone. Which is really unfortunate because my girlfriend and I actually had a really good time watching Steven Spielberg’s curious bomb of an adaptation of author Roald Dahl’s classic kid’s fantasy novel of the same name, published in 1982. I think we can all safely agree that, over the span of nearly 50 years, The Beard has easily proven himself to be one of the very best talents to emerge from the ever-evolving medium of film. Going back to his first ‘real’ movie, 1971’s surprisingly effective TV movie ‘Duel’, Spielberg has cranked out commercial / critical hit after hit as time has trudged on. But, the man is still human and therefore is still prone to the odd cinematic misfire. Now that’s not to say that the less-than-stellar box office performances of his notable ‘failures’ is indicative of the film-in-questions actual quality, except I think we can ALL agree, as even Spielberg himself himself has, that 1979’s over-the-top WW2 comedic fantasy ‘1941’ was a write-off in nearly every way. But others, like 1987’s excellent WW2 drama ‘Empire of the Sun’ or 1989’s charming romantic fantasy ‘Always’ fell short of the blockbuster mark, but are still great films. But even given the lacklustre ‘bank’ of those titles, none have financially crashed and burned as harshly as ‘The BFG’. $140 million dollar budget…$55 million take-home. Yeah…that’s a bomb, especially when you consider that to be considered an actual ‘hit’, a film needs to recoup the production cost…PLUS the marketing budget, which can almost double to the overall price c(ridiculous, I know). So, despite Spielberg at the helm, Disney at his back, the screenwriter of Spielberg’s own classic ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’, the late Melissa Mathison, on the page and the wealth of today’s high-tech film-making toolbox at their disposal, not to mention a full quarter century of gestation, ‘The BFG’ quietly came…and went. And after having leaped into it on a relaxing, candle-lit Saturday night…after stumbling upon it on Netflix….I can easily say that this charming fantasy film did NOT deserve the box office shaft that it got.
For those of you who don’t know, unlike those of us who read and loved this silly story as a kid, ‘The BFG’ centres on ‘Sophie’ (Ruby Barnhill), a young orphan in early 80’s England who, while suffering insomnia one night, witnesses an incredible thing from the window of the orphanage she calls home. A shadowy figure, 24 feet tall, striding quietly through the darkened, cobble stone streets. Unfortunately, this creature also sees ‘Sophie’ and before she can flee, he snatches her up and rushes her off to an alternate dimension known as ‘Giant Country’. Once there, we are introduced to the ‘Big Friendly Giant’ (Mark Rylance), a runt (by giant standards) who’s main goal in life is the capture, cultivation and spread of dreams among us humans. He also strives to be a good giant, stifling the natural inclination toward the devouring of children by eating a disgusting local vegetable as a substitute. Unfortunately, his 9 brethren, all considerably larger, fully embrace their appetite for the flesh of kids and this leads to tension and peril as they begin closing in on ‘Sophie’s presence in their realm. Despite her pleas, reasoning and anger, ‘BFG’ apologetically explains that he can’t take her back, out of fear of her spreading the word of the existence of ‘Giant Country’, which would lead humans to hunt them all down. Much peril and humor ensues.
Like I said earlier, this movie did not deserve to fail. As to be expected from Spielberg, the technical quality and the imagery are very well handled and, aside from a couple small plot issues, the narrative rolls along at a clip that will easily keep you rolling with it. What I suspect happened is that the ‘flavor’ of this film is very much in keeping with Spielberg’s fantasy-type films like ‘Hook’ (1991), or some of his work in the 1980’s, like the two episodes of ‘Amazing Tales’ he did in 1985. The bottom line is that I think the structure and pace of ‘The BFG’ is more in line with his cinematic sensibilities of yesteryear, and in this day of hyper-active instant gratification, it just didn’t click with audiences. In all fairness, in keeping with the tone of the childrens book, there’s an absurd element to the story that may have alienated some movie-goers who may have been unfamiliar with the source material and without the benefit of nostalgia, which would be the primary draw to a title like this, it just failed to garner the interest needed to make this a success.
As usual, the cast is solid. There aren’t that many big names on display but everyone that turned up certainly committed to the project. Mark Rylance, fresh off his first job with Spielberg, 2015’s cold war drama’ Bridge of Spies’, is pitch-perfect as the titular character. With his innocent nature, expressive features and his charming tendency to butcher the English language, his ‘BFG’ just comes alive and acts as a good foil for Ruby Barnhill’s take as ‘Sophie’. I liked her character too, with her coming off as a good mix of scared, strong, determined and resourceful. It’s clear that Spielberg hasn’t lost his touch with coaxing solid performances from his child actors and Barnhill was no different. We also get Rebecca Hall (‘Iron Man 3’) and Rafe Spall (‘Prometheus’) turning up in amusing supporting roles.
Technically, this film looks beautiful. The imagery from parts of ‘Giant Country’ is gorgeous and would’ve looked amazing in 3D, while the artisty and motion-cap performances of all the giants in the story is inspired and fun. Once more, as expected, Spielberg shows his flair with composition and blocking, with several scenes playing out in long, intricate takes that were filled with all kinds of clever visual elements and humor. I particulary loved a sequence in the 1st Act where ‘BFG’, having just kidnapped ‘Sophie’, must stealthily move through downtown London at 3am, in full sight of the scattering of people up at that ungodly hour while also managing to cleverly remain completely hidden on his way to the cliffside portal to ‘Giant Country’. In a nutshell, they spared no expense on the visuals.
After having to bow out of scoring ‘Bridge of Spies’ after 42 years of collaboration with Spielberg due to his commitment to ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, John Willams is back to lend the ‘final piece of dialogue’ to ‘The BFG’. Now Williams has crafted some absolutely iconic and memorable pieces of music for the films of Steven Spielberg (among others) and while, to me, it was clear that he was the one behind the orchestra, I have to admit that I found the music a wee bit underwhelming. It served it’s purpose, but certainly won’t live on like pieces such as the ‘Star Wars’ theme, or ‘The Raiders March’. It was there…but didn’t leap out at me like some of his previous works have (and do).
All in all, ‘The BFG’ was exactly what I needed on a cozy Saturday night with my lady. We both found it to be a fun and charming fantasy film that boasted some serious technical talent and clever story elements, boosted by some expectedly good performances. It definitely didn’t deserve to fall on it’s face financially the way that it did and I can only imagine that it just wasn’t its time. Too much competition perhaps, a story-style from an older generation possibly, some silly elements (fart jokes!) or oddly dark aspects (the unseen murder and devouring of kids) that maybe just didn’t click with a more cynical audience, and hell, maybe just the stars didn’t align in it’s favor…regardless of Spielberg’s, Mathison’s and Disney’s best efforts. While there’s no helping the dismal box office take at this point, I definitely think it deserves peoples attention, at least. ‘The BFG’ is a solid, yet silly fantasy film that I feel would work for all ages. If you have kids (though not a requirement), I think that you could throw this one on and they’ll have a good time with it, and as a bonus, it’ll be a fun little ‘time waster’ for you too.


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