Spielberg in his lower quartile.


As a big fan of Spielberg I was rather disappointed by “The BFG”. In the SFR (Spielberg Film Ranking) it is more at the “1941” and “Crystal Skull” end than at the “ET” and “JAWS” end. This is a film squarely aimed at the kids market (and there’s nothing wrong with that) but even for kids films there is no excuse for poor execution.

Hairy Palmer… but no Michael Caine.

The BFG, as virtually every parent is aware, tells the story of little ‘insomniacal’ orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) – espying and being carried off by the titular Big Friendly Giant (a CGI’d Mark Rylance) in the middle of the night. The BFG’s job is to catch dreams and blow them into the heads of sleeping people. He’s friendly but his bullying colleagues in the Land of the Giants are not, liking very much the taste of ‘human beans’. The rebellious Sophie determines to jolt the BFG out of his servile state to take on his repressors; something that will require the help of people in high places.

Jemaine Clement as Fleshlumpeater, leader of the giants, who also feature Bill Hader, Fear in “Inside Out”.

On the positive side, the look of the film is glorious from the opening ‘Mary Poppinised’ views of London to the BFGs home and the ‘land of dreams’. Spielberg regulars Janusz Kaminsky drives the beautiful cinematography and Michael Kahn the crisp editing. Also worthy of note is the Production Design and set decoration on which the credibility of a film like this relies.

Mark Rylance also injects great charisma into his facial expressions which, at the moments where the film turns (overly in my view) soppy and sentimental, do move you. And there are some (OK, about two) really laugh out loud moments with flatulent Corgis being a high-point.

Mark Rylance is all ears.

However there seems to be minimal chemistry developed between Sophie and the BFG, and it constantly feels that they are filming this in different places (which they very possibly were). While I hate to be critical of a young person, this seems to be down to the performance of Barnhill. Spielberg is normally the master of pulling out epic performances from his kid actors (think of Cary Guffrey in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or Drew Barrymore in “ET”) yet – whilst young Ruby is perfectly sweet and pleasant – there doesn’t seem to be that depth or range in the actress to make you believe she is particularly scared at the beginning (wouldn’t you need a blanket wash?) or having the gumption to drive the giant to such actions.  

“What – Boris Johnson is Foreign Secretary??” . A good surprise face from Ruby Barnhill as Sophie.

I feel even worse about my next criticism – screenwriter Melissa Mathison  (“ET”) – since this was her last screenplay before dying in November last year at the early age of 65 (and the film is dedicated to her).  “Dreams is so quick on the outside but long on the inside” says the BFG, and at times some of the dialogue feels far too ‘long on the inside’. A problem here is that Roald Dahl’s story is rather slight, but the screenplay seriously struggles to pad it out to the 2 hour running time (given the attention span of youngsters, Spielberg would have done well to make this a 90 minute movie). While the film very occasionally kicks into gear, significant chunks are, unfortunately, just plain dull.

The script also seems to lack an anchor for its time and place. The Queen (the excellent Penelope Wilton) is familiar as our monarch, but a comedic reference to “Prime Minister Boris” is immediately punctured by a confusing US reference to Nancy and Ronald!  Why not Barack and Michelle?  Bizarre!   

Penelope Wilton’s turn as The Queen. Whizzpopper’s approaching!

The soundtrack is by the great John Willams, but this is not one of his best. I remember an interview with the Maestro where Alfred Hitchcock advised the young composer on the set of “Family Plot” to stop the music at one point to signify the emptiness of a room. There are times in this film where you wish he still held to that advice, since at times the music is jarringly obtrusive and irritating, mimicking in percussion every little dream that zips across the screen.

For balance, in this summer of repeated terrorist horror and distress, this is a dose of escapism that should be welcomed. (It would be nice to think that all these troubles could be solved by helicoptering all the bad guys in the world to a remote island with nothing to eat but snozzcumbers!) And I’m sure that many a 6 or 7 year old will simply delight in the film. But I can’t help thinking it should have been much better, and perhaps might have been better enlivened as a musical, with Tim Minchin lyrics to add a bit of parental zip.

Another ash tree suffers from ‘die back’

 As a final serious note to parents, there is a point at which Sophie jumps out of a high window expecting the BFG to catch her: in the same way that the old “Batman” TV series had an Adam West/Burt Ward led pre-clip telling kids not to copy their antics, I would suggest that any susceptible young children need a stern talking to that all of this is pretend.

Kids, 6 to 10:  FFFf.
Fad Rating:  FFf.