Past the Popcorn: Spielberg Finally Finds a Way to Film The BFG

by Jeff Walls

Author Roald Dahl published his children’s novel The BFG in 1982, the same year filmmaker Steven Spielberg released his classic film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.  Now thirty-four years later, those two powerhouses combine for the movie version of The BFG.  Spielberg is directing from a script by the late Melissa Mathison, her first produced script in nearly twenty years.  Mathison, by the way, wrote the script for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

Like the 1982 classic, The BFG is about a young child who meets a mysterious stranger who brings a certain level of magic into her life.  The young protagonist is Sophie, an orphan with insomnia, who early one morning finds a giant outside her window.  She is whisked away by this giant to Giant Country.  At first she is frightened, expecting him to be a mean, monstrous ogre who eats little children, but she soon learns that he is a sweet giant.  She names him BFG, an abbreviation for Big Friendly Giant.

bfg-insetBFG is the exception to the rule, however, and he explains to her that all of the other giants in Giant Country will eat her first chance they get.  After witnessing the cruel way in which the other giants treat BFG, Sophie decides that they must fight back.  To do so, she decides that they need to recruit the help of an army and she knows just the person who could help them with that.

The BFG has been in production for nearly twenty years, waiting for cinema technology to catch up with the story’s vision.  Now, in the age of motion capture technology, the time is right for little girls and giants to exist in the same shot.  The result is a visually impressive film that features an incredible motion-capture performance by Mark Rylance.  While working with Rylance on last year’s Bridge of Spies—a role that would earn the actor an Oscar—Spielberg instantly identified him as the perfect actor to play the BFG.  He was right.

Even though the character is visually created in a computer, the motion-capture process allows the performance of Rylance to shine through.  Anyone who has seen the actor either in Bridge of Spies or something else will instantly recognize his face in the character.  He is able to act using both subtle expressions and big movements, which allow the character to feel very real and present in every moment.  His voice work is also an excellent choice for the character, warm and grandfatherly.  He also handles the character’s playful dialogue with ease as BFG has his own lovable understanding of the English language.

The rest of the giants, however, are a little too goofy and not as well characterized.  Even though BFG tells us all of their names, with the exception of the one primary antagonist, none of the rest are ever clearly identified.  It would have made them much more interesting as characters and villains if we could identify them as clearly as, say, the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  They also come across more as annoying rather than scary, which doesn’t help the movie any.

Although the movie wastes no time in introducing the two main characters, little else happens in the first half of the movie and it feels quite slow until the main plot is finally revealed in the second half. Having not read the book, I found myself wondering during this first half just where the movie could go and was quite surprised to see where it eventually went.  Most of the more entertaining moments come in the second half, but since so much time was spent in the first half, the climax actually felt quite rushed.  What seemed set up to be a fantastic action scene is over in the blink of an eye.

The BFG cannot come close to matching that earlier Spielberg movie named after its character’s initials, but it is a colorful, funny, and entertaining movie that should delight most kids.  It is worth seeing if only for the latest in what is an ever-growing stable of great motion-capture performances.

The BFG opens today at the Century Federal Way, AMC Kent Station 14, and Regal Parkway Plaza 12. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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