Big Friendly Giant? Big Fucking Git? Baggy Flaccid Grind, more like. I can only account for the generally positive critical reception to The BFG being down to the Hollywood-royalty status reserved for Steven Spielberg these days. Audiences weren’t going to buy a lame duck, though, which is why it rightly bombed.
This is the director’s weakest picture since Hook, and while it isn’t an outright disaster the way that sorry spectacle is (Dustin Hoffman honourably excepted), it suggests, ironically, that the mastermind behind one of the most successful kids’ movies ever – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, in case you were wondering – comes a cropper when he expressly attempts to chase that audience. The BFG is dramatically inert and comedically inept (the latter never the director’s strong point when he’s trying too hard for it, as he is here) and visually unappetising. Perhaps it’s time for the ’berg, just turned seventy, to bow out gracefully? Or accept that he no longer has it when it comes to filling multiplexes.
The tester will be his next, Ready Player One, which unwisely finds him diving into the ’80s nostalgia he was a key figure in fashioning the landscape for, which smacks of playing with fire. But, in the post-mortem on The BFG, you can readily point to a giant’s fist of reasons for its failure. Expanding a slender tale to a two-hour movie is probably top of the list, particularly since there’s minimal drama, wonder or awe to fill the void.
Then there are the effects, which I suppose give the reliable Mark Rylance a passing resemblance to Quentin Blake’s original artwork, but entirely fail to convince that they’re anything other than motion captured, CG renderings (but then, only a bloody ijit would think it made sense to try to give Blake’s art a “realistic” rendering). On top of which, we have the inevitable Janusz Kaminski cinematography; the odd vista aside, his clinician’s approach feels entirely inappropriate to the warm, inviting hues one would expect of a family movie. You can feel him longing to get back to East Berlin. As for John Williams’ score, dragging the poor guy out of retirement for Star Wars and Spielfests isn’t doing his legacy any favours; he’s clearly all out of ideas and inspiration.
Having tepidly navigated the dubious waters of a larger-than-life, silvery-haired protagonist with a peculiar inflection who engages in child abduction (and who makes fast friends with royalty) without alluding to ’70s BBC TV presenters (but it’s alright, this is set in the ’80s… oh, wait….), Spielberg settles into a story that…. doesn’t go anywhere. Slowly. Not helping matters is that, while Rylance is fine, if uncommanding, Ruby Barnhill is never in danger of lighting up the screen in the crucial role of young lead Sophie. The problems are mainly director-based, though, as the ’berg fails to instil even a modicum of momentum into a meandering and unengaged story (perhaps, given it was Melissa Mathison’s final work, he was reluctant to prune it).
There are encounters with other giants. Jermaine Clement is on good vocal form as Fleshlumpeater, but alas, there’s scant mirth for him to dig into; he ought to have been given a long leash to improvise. Then there’s dream spreading (like everything else here, they are sadly literal and unmagical). There’s also farting (far too CG and not nearly naughty enough, if you’ll pardon the far-too). You can practically smell the ’berg’s embarrassment over it.
We also encounter Penelope Wilton’s Queen, oddly not portrayed as a cannibalistic lizard (or she’d no doubt join forces with the bad giants), who farts less than regally (a pair of corgis blowing off and express training across the palace floor did raise a smile, but that was about the only incident that did) and to whom the BFG, the Ed Snowden of his kind, betrays the other giants.
Spielberg never gets the tone right, or the visuals. The BFG is never whimsical or playful enough, bouncy enough, spirited enough, anarchic enough or dark enough, funny enough, and all far too (if you’ll pardon the far-too) literal to embrace Dahl’s flight of fantasy and benign/warped silliness. One quickly comes to the conclusion that live-action wasn’t the way to go. But I also think, more to the point, tired old Steven wasn’t the guy to make The BFG, unless Disney (for whom it’s his first picture; someone won’t be asked back) wanted something to send kids into actual dream land ten minutes in.