‘The BFG’: Even Steven Spielberg can’t stir a lumbering giant
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Exiting the theater after the technically impressive but listless and tedious “The BFG,” I wondered:
Of the more than 50 films Steven Spielberg has directed, was this my least favorite?
No, I haven’t forgotten about “The Adventures of Tintin” or “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” or “Hook” or “1941.” But if I had to rank all of the Spielberg-directed films, from the myriad four-star classics through the terrific but slightly lesser movies down to the very small handful of misses, I think I’d rather see every one of Spielberg’s previous films before having to sit through “The BFG” again.
It’s not awful. I’m not sure Spielberg could deliver a thudding clunker if he tried. But it’s painfully cutesy, silly and gross rather than whimsical and funny — and it moves so slowly I got to the point where I found myself thinking “BFD” about the BFFs in “The BFG.”
Set in the Great Britain (and Giant Country) of the 1980s, “The BFG” gets off to a promising start with a nifty late-night sequence in which the adorable and precocious orphan girl Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, all plunk and spunk with little subtlety) wanders around the cavernous and cold and forbidding orphanage deep into the witching hour — telling herself not to get out of bed, not to go to the window and not to throw open the curtains, which of course she does every night.
This leads to a sighting of one Big Friendly Giant (voiced by “Bridge of Spies” Oscar winner Mark Rylance) who has no choice but to scoop her up and take her to Giant Country, lest she spill the beans about his existence.
As is the case with all Spielberg fantasies, the special effects are terrific and the attention to detail in the sets is so vibrant and precise it almost distracts from the action in the foreground. Spielberg and his team have done a marvelous job of bringing Roald Dahl’s 1982 illustrated children’s book to big-screen, 3D life. (Here’s no surprise: The 3D is underwhelming. The 3D is underwhelming in about 95 percent of 3D films.)
One of the big problems with “The BFG”: Life in Giant Country isn’t particularly exciting or interesting or even all that scary, even though it’s supposed to be at least scary. It’s kind of a drag, truth to tell. Maybe that orphanage ain’t looking so bad after all, kid.
Turns out that even at 24 feet, the BFG is known as “Runt” by the nine other giants in his village (such as it is), who appear to be about three times his size and about 1/10th as intelligent. (They’re all male giants, which could explain why these behemoths are so grumpy all the time.)
Led by the grunting, drooling and disgusting Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), the giants bully Runt with nasty fervor, and spend nearly every waking moment either hunting down human beings aka “beans” or roaring about how they love the taste of human beings. They’re a grotesque, dim-witted bunch, and other than their leader, they have no distinctive personality traits. In this movie, a little Supporting Player Giant goes a long way.
Meanwhile, the BFG talks in a patience-stretching language known as Gobblefunk, in which commons words are rearranged in a manner that plays well on the written page but is more annoying than amusing on film. All the “squibbling” and “ucky-mucky” and “whoopsey-splunkers” and “squiffling” and “delumptious” talk will. Wear. You. Down.
Also, about the 10th time little Sophie wails, “BFG! BFG!” I was expecting him to say, “WHAT! Can’t you just sit and READ for a little while!”
Nobody tops Spielberg when it comes to heart-tugging moments involving a child and an otherworldly creature, and the bond between Sophie and the BFG will indeed grab you from time to time.
What’s largely missing is the sense of wonder and adventure. The BFG works in the field of dreams, and we’re not talking Iowa cornfields. He catches dreams, he brews dreams — and deep into the night, he gently prowls the streets of London, using a trumpet of sorts to literally blow specific dreams into the sleep cycles of little boys and girls.
It’s a cool concept, but the onscreen visualization of the dreams themselves, while competent, doesn’t reach out and stun us on the level we’ve come to expect from Spielberg.
Even less satisfying is a stunningly unfunny and overlong sequence in which Sophie and the BFG visit the queen (Penelope Wilton from “Downton Abbey”), who decides it’s a grand idea to invite the giant into Buckingham Palace and serve him the world’s largest breakfast — even though Sophie and the BFG have just told her about nine giants who are gobbling up the children of England.
Come on Queenie. Get it together. Stop feeding the friendly giant and go get the ones who are EATING THE CHILDREN.
Walt Disney presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated PG (for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor). Opens Friday at local theaters.