The Failure of the Human Beans: a Review of Spielberg’s BFG

“From the human beans that created E.T.” shines in proud words on the poster of ‘The BFG’. Deservedly so. It might as well have said: From the human beans that proved complete generations that it’s dangerous to underestimate the capacity of their tear glands. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is, more than 30 years after release, still ‘the best Disney-movie that Disney never made’ and an absolute high point in the career of a director whose resume counts many high points. Disney must have noticed, because with The BFG we arrived at the first collaboration between the studio and Steven Spielberg. After years in development hell, in which stage even the late Robin Williams was involved (it’s still so weird to type late in there), the movie is finally a fact. But is the end product more War Horse or more E.T.?

The short answer: neither.

The first was a faillure of a movie in which a couple of strong scenes drowned in a pool of sentimental mud. The second was a touching story in which no second of film was redundant (unless we maybe look at the digitally cleaned version from 2002, a mistake that Spielberg luckily rectified with the Blu-Ray).

With ‘The BFG’ we never get cringeworthy material like War Horse gave us, but Spielberg never injects the story of Roald Dahl with the magic that made E.T. such a timeless classic.

The faithful adaptation follows Dahl’s famous children book about a young girl in an orphanage, Sophie. One night she gets kidnapped by the Big Friendly Giant to Giant-land. There she learns that the BFG is a vegetarian who refuses to eat kids, contrary to the bigger giants who make BFG’s life a living hell. The giant and the young orphan spread dreams to the bedrooms of small kids and eventually call for the help of a pre-Brexit Queen of England to save the lives of other kids from the ‘bad’ giants.

It’s a simple story, but that shouldn’t harm the ability to pave the road to a classic movie. Gravity was a nail-biting movie experience created from a simple story about an astronaut wanting to get to earth in one piece. Spielberg himself proved early in his career with Jaws that a primitive story about a shark terrorizing a small island still can lead to a rich movie. But it’s in the execution, helped by a script of the late (there’s that damn word again!) Melissa Matheson – who also penned E.T. – where the human beans fail.

Disclaimer: this critic has never read the book. The movie has been judged on it’s own terms.

The movie starts of immediately at the night where Sophie is kidnapped and at that point we know as good as nothing about the girl. In her first conversation with the giant, Sophie tells him that the life in the orphanage is terrible. But not in any way or shape do we see this in the film. A bit more confrontation between Sophie and the other girls or superiors in the orphanage could have injected her character with a bit a highly necessary sympathy.

The second act of the movie is surprisingly conflict-free and the so-called stakes always seem on the back burner. This makes the movie a bit of a slow view that quickly becomes dull. The fact that Sophie is afraid and immediately wants to go home, doesn’t work as strong if she provided us with a whole description about the unpleasant life in the orphanage just one scene ago. The stakes to rescue the other kids never seem to have any personal connection to Sophie and to make matters worse, those stakes are introduced very late into the movie. It makes a lot of the long dialogue scenes between Sophie and the giant feel very meaningless in the first half of the film.

In these scenes the creators also pull the card of verbal exposition above visual exposition. While Spielberg could have SHOWN us that Sophie had a difficult life, he just lets her tell it. While he could have played with surprise elements in an action scene to SHOW us that the other giants are dangerous, he first lets the BFG drily tell Sophie. That there are kids disappearing doesn’t get shown to us, the viewers, through a dark or exciting sequence, but trough a headline in a newspaper that the Queen reads in her bed towards the end of the movie.

In a comparison with E.T., in which the 2 main characters where both from another world and got to know each other through wordless but captivating scenes, the counter-bid of The BFG feels weak.

But not only in comparison with that classic ‘The BFG’ is disappointing. Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s previous picture, also had long drawn out dialogue scenes. But it was always clear that the lives of people whom we had met before were at stake. This helped to keep the tension high in Tom Hanks’ verbal stand-offs with his negotiators. ‘The BFG’ misses all of that and along the way looses our attention because of it.

In the third act we get some disarming fish-out-of-the-water sequences in which the BFG visits the Royal Palace. Those often work better, but it’s too little too late. Especially when the climax, where our heroes confront the flesh-eating villains, disappoints again. Spoiler warning: It’s all over very quickly, very easily. The 2 main characters never risk a lot and all the heavy duties get done by an army of anonymous soldiers which we don’t care about. To add insult to injury, Spielberg doesn’t show a lot of visual flair in what should be his strong points: the mise-en-scene of the action scenes.

As usual with a Spielberg movie, acting performances are reliable and for a large part provided by unknown faces. Mark Rylance, Spielberg’s new fetish-actor (the man who already signed for the next movie by the director, an adaption of the sci-fi book Ready Player One) tries to fill the gaps left by the script with his natural charm. The young Ruby Barnhill doesn’t show any signs of stress in front of all those collected centuries of experience surrounding her and in front of her, but because of the omissions in the script it doesn’t make any lasting impression.

Yes, the movie has some nice typical Spielberg shots, for example when Sophie sees the giant for the first time, gets caught up in a curtain while the camera, backlight shining in the lens, gets closer to her skin. Or the sequence where Spielberg uses silhouettes to capture the dream of a small boy, which is simple visual magic. But only a handful of these is not enough to save the movie. During the shooting of Tintin Spielberg seemed to have discovered a certain ‘swaying’ camera that swinged a bit too often towards nothing. During action scenes it worked, but in the middle of dialogue scenes it felt redundant. Here Spielberg seems to make the same mistake. During the interaction of Sophie and the BFG, the camera seems to swing and move without a lot of motivation.

Did the crew shoot too many scenes in front of a green screen to sparkle Spielberg’s imagination? The man often said in interviews that he prefers practical sets because it lets his imagination do overtime.

Which brings us to the effects, made by Weta Digital. The big ears and face of Mark Rylance as a giant is a feast for the eyes, but the big movements often feel a bit unnatural. Do we have to blame the tight deadlines that put a burden on the shoulders of many Visual FX-companies, while the environments often feel too plasticky? In The Adventures of Tintin, where everything was digital and the source was a stylized comic, this didn’t bother nearly as much.

John Williams impressed with his soundtrack for Star Wars The Force Awakens, but his work for this movie sounds like a light-version of the man’s work for the Harry Potter movies. Still, I enjoyed this somewhat autopilot-Williams more than his work for War Horse.

Did the Roald Dahl estate put too many restrictions on the adaptation? I can’t help but feel that an adaptation that was less faithful could have ended up with a more satisfying end result. It’s clear that all people involved performed adequate work, but ‘adequate’ work rarely produces a really memorable movie and that’s unfortunate, considering all the collected talent behind the screens of this picture.

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