What’s shocking here is that it took so long for Steven Spielberg to finally work for Disney. He the purveyor of the candy-coated family-friendly adventures filled to the brim with a sense of wonder and awe, often with a dash of darkness lurking underneath to keep the tension going. Is he the right choice for Roald Dahl’s topsy-turvy, macabre world of heavy word-play and twisted poetry? I’m not entirely sure, but The BFG makes an unwieldy but compelling argument that he may be.
If there’s anything to knock The BFG for, and repeatedly, it’s the ungainly way the motion-capture work and the live-action material don’t completely vibe with each other. After a period of time of watching a human child clearly interacting with a largely artificial world, you wonder what would’ve happened if they did most of this with camera tricks, heavy makeup, and a minimal amount of CGI. Or, conversely, if they had gone the opposite route and gone all in on the motion-capture CGI look and made a largely animated film, think of the director’s own The Adventures of Tintin.
Or what if they went with a film that mixed the two mediums into separate chunks like James and the Giant Peach? Imagine a human Sophie in the beginning suddenly transformed into a slightly twisted version of herself once she enters the BFG’s world and then reverts back whenever she returns to the human world. Too conceptual you argue, perhaps, but it’s been successfully done before. Audiences were sophisticated enough to accept that Dorothy’s real-life was in sepia toned Depression-era Kansas and Oz was a colorful land of imagination and nightmares.
But they, like so many of Disney’s recent live-action retreads of their own beloved properties, decided to go through this method, and it displays a serious commitment to the “formula.” This is Spielberg doing Dahl for Disney! Money and time shouldn’t have been an issue, and if group of creative types could’ve taken their time to make something “more,” it was this group of power players. Instead we get something that’s pleasing, nice, and well-acted while also being a bit too cutesy for its own good and strangely defanged from Dahl’s typically venomous humor and worldview.
What they left behind is beyond perfect for Spielberg’s filmmaking milieu: a quiet, whimsical creature that spends much of his time bottling dreams to redistribute them as magical confections. Is that self-reflective of Spielberg’s standing as one of the guardians of a “Dream Factory” filmmaking aesthetic that is rapidly drying up as louder, greedier, bigger, dumber goons, here represented by the other giants that eat human children for the hell of it.
Sure, he’s not out to challenge us with this one, here’s in pure enchanter mode and that means The BFG deflates before reaching its end, but he’s smart enough to hand the role over to Mark Rylance, character actor extraordinaire. The BFG was once a passion project for Spielberg and Robin Williams, hard to imagine the manic, rapid-fire pop culture ramblings of his comedy folding neatly into Dahl’s world, but languished for so long that the role passed over to someone else for a variety of reasons. Rylance is a smart enough actor to know that you don’t compete for laughs and world play with Dahl, you merely find the beats and muscularity of his language and find a way to deliver it. His BFG is a winning combination of gawkiness, befuddled speech, and graceful gentleness and elegance.
It’s best to watch The BFG as an excuse to spend with a great actor treating a curious, strange part with the same reservoir of feeling, empathy, and guilelessness that he brings to his stage parts or darker dramatic work. The flimsy narrative and uneven child actor hinder the film from being a richer experience like several of Spielberg’s prior works, but sometimes a quaint dream is more than enough.