Another year has passed, and once again there is still catch up to be done with The Anticipated, so let’s get to it with the first of my YA two-for-ones (which I really need to stop doing, but probably won’t), Steven Spielberg’s The BFG. I haven’t really been the biggest fan of Spielberg’s work since the dawning of the 21st century, as other than with Munich I have generally felt he has only been treading water. Did a return to the world of kid’s movies spur him out of his long complacency, or is this just going to be another big friendly disappointment? Let’s find out.
Spoilers Ahead (though nothing too egregious).
The BFG (July 1st 2016)
How was it?
Depends which part you are talking about. The first half of this movie is incredibly uninspired, slow, meandering, and never really works. Things start to pick up when The BFG (Mark Rylance) and Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) go dream catching, but the movie doesn’t really figure itself out until The BFG meets the Queen of England and everything just gets gloriously weird. So it is a little hard to properly judge this movie. It is probably a good movie, but saying anything more than that simply requires you to overlook too many flaws. At the same time, there are times in this film that I felt Spielberg was more engaged than he has been in years, which definitely counts for something.
Then there is the fact that Mark Rylance is really good as The BFG. As motion capture technology continues to get better, we are going to notice more and more that motion capture performances can be just as good, if not better, than normal live action ones. The ball for this already got rolling with Andy Serkis, in both his performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings universe and more impressively as Caesar in the current run of Planet of the Apes movies. Now Rylance has delivered a spectacular mo-cap performance of his own. The way he uses his voice is fantastic and so are the facial reactions he is able to deliver to show all of The BFG’s various emotions–especially the gentle giant’s struggle to say certain words or properly express how he is feeling. The mannerisms are great, and Rylance deserves a lot more praise than he has received for giving such a performance, especially after he had built his profile with his great turn in last year’s Bridge of Spies.
There are other nice performances in this movie. Barnhill is solid enough in her role, and Penelope Wilton offers a rather funny turn as The Queen, but Rylance is definitely the main highlight. Though I must say, all I can do is lament at Rebecca Hall’s role in this film. It screamed, “We need a biggish actress to make it clear this particular role is important, but not someone too famous.” The fact that this is Hall at this point in her career is just sad, and makes me wonder once again what might have been for her career if Marvel had just let her be cast as the main villain 0r whatever the hell better role she was supposed to be in Iron Man 3. Oh, well. At least she got good role in 2016’s Christine. This mini-rant is getting me off track, so for The BFG purposes, I’ll just say she does well in the role she is given and accomplishes what she needs to, so there’s that.
Ultimately what’s most notable about The BFG is how it struggles to inhabit the film with the right energy. This isn’t all that surprising. The film is based on a Roald Dahl book, and those can always be difficult to properly adapt. Dahl’s books have such a weird energy and tone that they can lead to completely different works depending on who is doing the adaptation. Usually you get one of two results. Either a filmmaker takes the approach of the original film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Gene Wilder-lead Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which captured the spirit of Dahl’s work while toning down some of the novel’s strangeness; or they take more after the more recent Johnny Depp version of Charlier and the Chocolate Factory, which was much more concerned with capturing the true tone of Dahl’s work. Both films managed to work for completely different reasons (though most people seem to like the original more), so neither tack is inherently better, but it does mean that a Dahl adaptation can kind of be all over the place.
Unfortunately, The BFG seemed to struggle with which way it wanted to go. The first half of the film felt like a generic kid’s story wrapped in The BFG‘s skin, while the second half embraced its weird nature much more and worked so much better once it finally seemed to grasp the right tone for the film–the unselfconscious silliness of classy fart jokes and giants getting captured by helicopters under orders from the Queen of England. To be fair, this seems like an issue in the book, too, but the film needed to do a better job of moving through the early part of the story so it could spend more time on what actually worked at the end. More importantly, that end is what Spielberg actually seems to care about, as so much of the first half of the film seems phoned in, which makes it feel really low on energy.
Isn’t this based on…?
As already stated, Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, The BFG. It’s a bit surprising that it took this long to get made, but the technology had just never really been there until recently, unless you wanted to make a fully animated movie.
Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
Err, probably not. While solid, it didn’t really feel like it moved forward the kid’s movie genre as much as I had hoped it might. Spielberg only seemed to be able to stay engaged for the end of the film, which made it a bit of a rough watch early on. It is still a pleasant enough movie, but not one ultimately worth getting all that excited about. It was also a pretty massive box office flop; even without marketing costs the film only earned globally about the size of its budget (and half of those earnings went to the theaters). There was just not a lot of excitement for this film, as it came and disappeared without much fuss, and was overshadowed by Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (which has some similar problems to this movie, but is a better film overall).
This all comes down to Spielberg, who once again made a fine movie, a level which he has simply settled for far too much in the past decade. This film felt like one that could knock him out of this malaise, but maybe he is just too concerned with Ready Player One to care as much at this point. This isn’t War Horse, which is still one of the most phoned-in movies I have ever seen, but The BFG feels really empty early on. Luckily things pick up by the end, which is why this is probably one of his more enjoyable “fine” movies, but man, is this film wonky. But I still have hope. Last year Spielberg delivered Bridge of Spies, which was quite good and may have finally satisfied Spielberg’s desire to keep making historical “important” movies. The BFG feels like an attempt to return to a more entertaining and fun form, and that really seeps through at times. The last chunk of the movie has a giddiness and superb level of craft that makes you think that these past two years could be a turning point. This makes me feel slightly less bad about putting it on my Anticipated list, but that doesn’t mean the movie itself works as well as it could have, which is frustrating.
Would I recommend it to others?
It’s a good enough kid’s movie, and Mark Rylance is quite superb, so sure, if quality entertainment for a younger audience is what you are looking for then go for it. It doesn’t really need to be seen in a theatre, which is a shame because the visuals in the film should have been much better than they actually are.
How would I rate it?
So where does that leave the rating, then? Not well, considering how hard it was for me to even see this film because it left theatres so quickly. The BFG did fulfill some of my hope that it might reignite Spielberg a bit, but that simply means I’m passing that hope to Ready Player One, which I have kind of been doing for years–I keep thinking I will like the next Spielberg film more than the current one. So, on the handy Anticipation Meter, The BFG receives 5.5 snozzcumbers out of 10. This film is fun enough, but definitely failed to meet expectations like I had hoped. Though I feel that its bad initial buzz hampered the film far more then it should have, and led to it being dismissed from theatres because everyone was convinced by the initial tepid support not to see it.
For an actual rating: This is where it gets a little tougher. This film is really better in a lot of ways then I am giving it credit for. The music is actually quite good, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of a ton of the visuals, the dream catching scenes were exquisitely beautiful. Add in Mark Rylance’s good performance, and despite its flaws, The BFG is a good movie. So while I am inclined to say it is more like somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars, I am going to go high and err on the side of the last thirty minutes of the film being so enjoyable, which should count for something. I give it 3 stars out of 4. Overall, this film never quite delivers as you would hope it would, but manages to be quite a lot of fun when it wants to be. When Spielberg wants to, he really can still deliver some really impressive stuff, so that allows it to be simply more than just a fine movie, which is something.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. What’s next is a bit unclear, but it will likely be the second part of the YA/kid’s movie twofer with A Monster Calls. This film has had some weird delays on the way to its worldwide release date, but it really looks like it could be a truly visually stunning and emotionally resonant film. Will it deliver on this promise or simply be a overwrought emotional misfire? Find out when The Anticipated returns.