Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Melissa Mathison (screenplay) & Roald Dahl (based on book by)
Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, & Bill Hader
Genre: Action/Adventure, Comedy, Sci-fi/Fantasy
Rating: PG (for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor)
As a child, I remember vividly going to the video stores in my town often. Even when I was young, I had a passion for movies, and most every movie appropriate to my age, I watched including any Disney movie I could get my hands on. I grew up, like many of my generation, on Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, crafted by film legends like Steven Spielberg and John Williams.
One store had a movie that elicited an odd reaction from me. It was a VHS copy (remember those?) that always sat on the shelf, and I don’t remember it ever moving, unless it was from me. It rested on a sun-exposed shelf for many of its years, so long that the colors on the cover had all turned a dingy brown. Maybe they started out brown, but regardless, the name of that neglected movie was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and I left it there in that store, unwatched for so long.
I don’t remember when it was that I actually saw it for the first time, but after witnessing the magic of that film, I kicked myself for not knowing its charms sooner. Later, when James and the Giant Peach was turned into an animated movie, I pressured my parents to see it as soon as it came out. There was something about the styling of Roald Dahl that appealed to me as a youth, and I watched all the adaptations and read all the stories I could…except for one: the 1982 book and 1989 animated film, The BFG. Again, the dissuading voices won out in my head, and still, I’ve never seen or read it.
In the story, we follow a young girl named Sophie living in a London orphanage. Late in the night, she witnesses a large creature in the streets who carries her off to a land found on no map. His only name, if you can call it that, comes from her conversation with him: the Big Friendly Giant or BFG.
Early on, he shows Sophie that he has no mind to eat her, as is customary of child-eating giants. No, his diet is centered around eating foul-smelling snozzcumbers. Anyways, the BFG may be big to her, but he’s actually known as Runt to a pack of ruffian giants led by Fleshlumpeater. His need for a friend has put Sophie in danger, so BFG does his best to keep her safe, as he shows her more and more of the world he calls home. Now, we have a film version of this story of near-perfect pedigree: a Steven Spielberg directed take on a Roald Dahl classic, scored by John Williams and released by Disney. What more could you ask for? Can it get any better than that?
Violence/Scary Images: We’re dealing with a world of giants, and it’s obvious Spielberg plays up the mystery at first with covered faces and darkness. It may scare some children, especially with regard to the giants who eat children, but this is bedtime story level of scares, if that.
Language/Crude Humor: I never heard a single curse word, a noteworthy achievement in this day and time. The movie, funny enough, is set in the 1980s, but it’s going for a very timeless feel. The lack of language will hopefully allow it to be a treasured film in time to come. When it comes to crude humor, the film does have some, but it is all there from the original book. If truth be told, the moments of “crudeness” are probably where the film shines the most, but I digress from discussing further as to not spoil the story. With all who’ve watched it that I’ve talked to, no parent raised any issue with anything, content-wise.
Spiritual Content: With characters like giants and themes like the bottling of dreams, it’s most definitely a fantasy movie. Still, I can’t see Christians who take issue with Harry Potter finding much to raise a stink about here. If anything, I received a powerful spiritual message from the film which I will relay further in a *SPOILER* section.
Sexual Content: None at all.
Drug/Alcohol Reference: Early in the film, there is a scene involving drunken men leaving a tavern. Later in the film, the BFG offers the main character, Sophie, to a helping of Frobscottle, which, while not alcohol, is a drink with…observable effects!
Other Negative Content: I never picked up on anything negative. It’s, by far, one of the most family friendly films I’ve seen in the cinema for some time. I would have no problem letting any child see this, with my only consideration being if they get overly scared by things. I could see some children being frightened by the larger giants.
Positive Content: This film exhibited themes of loneliness and isolation in children without one or more parents, recurring motifs for Spielberg in such movies as E.T. and Jurassic Park. I found the film to show how people can be appreciated for their differences and accomplish great things together, but not in a preachy way, as can often be the case. It also showed how good ends can be brought about through unconventional means with a little bravery to move things forward, which I found to be a positive message as well.
It’s not often that I get to write a review after opening weekend. Box-office results shouldn’t change perceptions of a film, but I do think that reviews published after the initial dust has cleared can be helpful sometimes. What I’m witnessing is one of the biggest disappointments in a film for Spielberg or Disney? What’s happened? I don’t find this to be a reflection of the actual movie, as I will show I found it to be delightful. Maybe it’s the fault of the marketing? Maybe giants just don’t cut it for modern audiences, after the quiet returns for Jack the Giant Slayer and Gulliver’s Travels might show? Maybe it’s Roald Dahl’s fault for naming this story in such a mystifying way? Who knows why, but the fact remains: few are clamoring to see this movie.
It’s a shame really, because I found it to be quite good. Is it a new classic? Probably not, and I felt that before seeing the box-office returns. What I saw this past weekend was a film with a sense of adventure and fantasy. Those elements will go a long way with most any child. The technology in motion-capture is so good now, that I was immersed in what I saw. I felt a distance with Robert Zemeckis’ Disney film from a few years ago, A Christmas Carol. I didn’t get that here. While Sophie (played with quite a measure of spunk by Ruby Barnhill) is entirely a normal-sized human, as many other characters in the film, the majority of our time is spent with motion captured characters.
I must admit that, even though I consider myself a big fan of Spielberg, I have yet to see Bridge of Spies. My only association with Mark Rylance, prior to this film, is knowing he won an Oscar last year for his role in that film. Having only this performance to go off of, I can see why he came out of left field with the win. Seeing his complete ease with emoting through the motion capture was incredible. To read him described as one of the greatest stage actors of his generation is high praise, and his work here qualified that statement for me.
There is an understated beauty in what he does through the motion capture. He isn’t trying to be flashy, and I use this as a moment to highlight how Jim Carrey did that to the detriment of the aforementioned A Christmas Carol. No, Rylance will wow you with making a giant believable before your eyes on the screen. The words Dahl wrote on the page are intentionally strange throughout his works, and at times, viewers have to do their best to keep up with the phrasing here, but look above at those pictures. He makes the BFG come alive in a very real way. I cannot commend Rylance enough for his great work in this film. He makes the ridiculous phrases and all things fantastical become very human (which, despite their size, is what the BFG says a giant really is).
I love Jemaine Clement, and his gifts for comedy and voice acting are vastly underutilized in Hollywood, in my opinion. I’m so glad he was cast in this as Fleshlumpeater. Go to IMDB and look up the extended cast of giants in this film. You’ll see Bill Hader and many other character actors listed. When you see their photos, you’ll know them from various films and television shows, but don’t expect to recognize them here. Their motion capture characters look nothing like the actors in real life, but that doesn’t matter.
We are now at the point in film-making where motion capture is purely digital prosthetics. It yields some great results in this film, and each of the other giants are a visual treat in their vast differences. If anything, this film is most like The Adventures of Tintin, the passion project collaboration between Spielberg and Peter Jackson from a few years ago. That tech has furthered, and here, we see how much further. It’s truly amazing stuff to witness.
As I often do with “family films”, I watched this with my daughter, and it passed her kid’s seal of approval. She laughed until she hurt, and I’m not even joking. Most everyone in the theater did by my estimation. There is a strange pacing to everything, but I’ve found that to be true in all of Dahl’s adaptations. His allegories are almost like fables, and the world building takes time. Simple stories are “stretched” to fit the messages, and this is, at the end of it all, a simple tale. People will likely trash the film for not meeting budget, which does seem likely at this point, but I find nothing on screen to fault. I hope the film finds an audience over time. Spielberg has called this a project near and dear to him, so I hope fans of his work will give it a try. It’s a simple tale, and you may not be humming the music afterward, but I daresay you’ll be entertained.
*SPOILERS – Spiritual Content *
The BFG spends the film catching dreams in Dream Country, and in the film, we see that he spends the evenings sending those dreams into the homes of people in London. He begins to see that dreams can influence other people, and as a result of that revelation, he decides to influence the other giants in the film to see the error in eating children in the night by giving them dreams, showing its terribleness. I have pondered this plot thread for days now after seeing the film, and I actually referenced this in my message I preached this past Sunday.
His introduction of dreams to the other giants is quite analogous to Christians introducing the Word into the lives of non-believers. The BFG specifically calls the other giants “cannibals” in this film, and I, personally, saw this entire scenario through the lens of the abortion issue: giants (humans, by definition of the film) destroying children (humans) without regard for right or wrongness. Many people go their entire lives never seeing another viewpoint to the one they have already established, but until an idea is introduced to them that things can be or should be different in their lives and, specifically, they are challenged by the authority of Scripture, conviction never becomes an issue for them. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit, the Helper promised in Scripture, convicts people of the Truth. Believers sharing the Word is where that can begin.
John 16:7-11 (NKJV)
Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away;
for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you;
but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come,
He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:
+ Very family friendly + Strong motion-capture performances + Laugh-out loud funny at times, but always heartfelt
- Pacing is a bit wonky at times - A few transitioning issues between live-action actors and motion capture
The Bottom Line
Just like the tales Roald Dahl wrote, there is a uniqueness on display in Disney's The BFG. In a world of franchise-building for kids movies, it's refreshing to see a contained tale that is simple at its core and fully appropriate for all ages. While messages may not always be intentional from the filmmakers, they can be pulled from finely crafted tales, which I found this to be.