Not only is The BFG Steven Spielberg’s first firmly-aimed-at-families directorial project since his 2011 Tintin film, but it’s also an adaptation of a beloved Roald Dhal story, Spielberg’s final collaboration with his late E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, and a reunion with Mark Rylance, who nabbed an Oscar for his previous Spielberg team-up, Bridge Of Spies.
So does The BFG live up to all those anticipation-inciting elements? Well, yes and no. One big positive is that there’s certainly a hefty heart here, as you’d expect from the writer/director duo that had audiences sobbing over a puppet alien back in 1982.
From the minute that Rylance’s eponymous Big Friendly Giant plucks Ruby Barnhill’s insomniac orphan Sophie from her bed, a heart-warming friendship is born. What begins as prickly bantering develops into genuine affection, as the BFG shows Sophie the awe-inspiring world of dream creation and his sympathetic situation as a shorter giant who’s bullied by the bigger boys.
There are plenty of reasons to get emotionally invested in this film, and you’ll find yourself rooting for these characters as they journey through worlds both spectacular (certain sections of Giant Country look stunning) and mundane (the BFG hiding in plain sight within the streets of London is a great sequence). And there are a few really big laughs, too, particularly in the film’s final half-hour, which takes suitably giant-sized swerve.
But one thing this film lacks is tension. After making us care for its central characters, E.T. made us cry by suggesting that one of them was going die, for instance, even ahead of its infamous ending. Rather than pushing us to these heartstring-tugging emotional extremes, The BFG is more of an ambling-along-at-an-enjoyable-pace sort of experience.
For some, the use of computer generated effects here might be problematic as well. While the spot-on use of motion capture allows Rylance to give a wonderfully charming performance despite being caked in white dots (the BFG himself looks and sounds brilliant throughout), the way in which scenes are stitched together is often distracting. Using technical wizardry, Spielberg regularly zooms out of Sophie’s tiny viewpoint and up into the BFG’s taller perspective.
This means that the transition between physical characters and CGI ones is often very noticeable, and resultantly you’ll sometimes find yourself looking for the seams and the cracks in the editing rather than suspending your disbelief and enjoying the wonderful performances on show. Even when there’s a lot to enjoy on screen, being taken out of a film is always jarring and detrimental.
Arguably, though, The BFG was never meant to be about nerve-shredding tension or immersive special effects. It’s meant to be about the friendship between a giant and a girl, and this new movie version succeeds in that regard.
Ruby Barnhill was a great find, showing plenty of confidence, comic flair and emotional range as Sophie, despite this being her first ever screen role. And Rylance bounces off her wonderfully, bringing the BFG’s nervous disposition and quirky understanding of the English language to life in a way that’ll plaster a smile to your face for the duration of the film.
When other characters get involved (with the exception, perhaps, of a certain surprise guest), they don’t stand a chance of making an impact alongside this impeccable double act. The other giants seem very one-dimensional and uninteresting by comparison, especially when all they’re given to do is bully the BFG and lark around. A huge and kinetic CGI sequence where the BFG’s conflict with these bullies comes to a head is probably the low-point of the film.
Overall, this is a fun little film, bolstered by two great performances and some stellar mo-cap engineering, but marred by some distracting editing, less interesting side characters and a lack of tension. It’ll find a place in your heart, but it won’t trouble your tear glands.