Spielberg is bombing at the box office, but take your kids anyway.
Steven Spielberg rose to fame and fortune as one of the world’s greatest film directors because of his uncanny skill in reading the inclinations of the masses, resulting in one blockbuster after another (though there were a few misfires along the way). That skill seems to have deserted him with his new film, The BFG, which has bombed all over North America despite being (in my opinion) one of the better children’s films made in this century.
Unlike the nonstop action featured in most children’s films made today, The BFG is a slow, thoughtful film.
Based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book of the same name, The BFG (written by Melissa Mathison) stars Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, a young orphan in London who is abducted by a Big Friendly Giant, or BFG (played by Mark Rylance), because she has seen him and may tell others about the existence of giants. The BFG takes Sophie to his home in a hidden realm known as Giant Country, where Sophie learns that, while the rest of the giants (nine of them) like to eat children, the BFG is not a “canniabal” (he has trouble with words) and will do whatever it takes to protect Sophie from the other giants. When the giant leader, called Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), comes to see what the BFG has to eat, Sophie discovers that the 24-foot BFG is actually a small giant, only half the size of the other giants, who bully the BFG and call him the runt.
The BFG’s vocation is catching dreams, and Sophie persuades him to take her to Dream Country, where they catch a good dream and a bad dream, both of which will be important as the plot unfolds. That plot involves the discovery of Sophie’s blanket by Fleshlumpeater, the subsequent search for the human he thinks the BFG is hiding, and eventually even the queen. What’s special about the plot, though, is how much Sophie and the BFG have to teach each other. A taste of the film’s magic can be seen in the BFG’s response to Sophie’s question about why he took her: “Because I hears your lonely heart, in all the secret whisperings of the world.”
The BFG includes many live-action actors and some real locations, but it feels mostly like a CGI film. The 2-D cinematography is gorgeous (despite being made for 3-D). The typical John Williams score is not outstanding, but it’s adequate. What is outstanding, however, is the performance by Rylance (who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Spielberg’s 2015 film Bridge of Spies earlier this year), which is easily worth the price of admission. Rylance provides an incredible depth to the characterization of the BFG, who is a lonely, melancholy, kindhearted giant capable of great mirth, especially when consuming his favorite drink, which has bubbles that fall instead of rise (with a corresponding reaction in the digestive system). The young Barnhill is likewise perfectly cast and brilliant as Sophie.
The BFG is a very slow, thoughtful film, unlike the nonstop action featured in most children’s films made today. Its delicate gentleness is designed to elicit wonder and enchantment more than laughs and gasps (though there is much to laugh or smile at, and enough action for me). It succeeds admirably, but clearly this is not what audiences today are expecting or wanting. The young children in the theater with us seemed to have a great time, though it was clear from the constant fidgeting and trips to the washroom that the attention-span required to truly enjoy The BFG was a stretch for the youngsters. Nevertheless, I wonder whether the film’s poor reception is due more to the boredom experienced by parents than to the attention span of their kids. Film viewers today are not used to immersing themselves in another world (regardless of how beautifully realized it is) unless it involves edits lasting no more than five seconds.
I won’t say The BFG is a perfect film. I found some of its digressions a little tedious and was uncomfortably jarred by the involvement of the British military near the end of the film (the military appears in the book as well). But on the whole, The BFG is a delightful and profound film for all ages, especially for children, who need to be exposed to far more films like this. Spielberg’s new film may have bombed at the box office, but this is due more to viewers’ unfortunate expectations than to the quality of what he has given us.
The BFG is rated G.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.