Film Review: THE BFG
Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Melissa Mathison
Based on the book by Roald Dahl
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer
Co-Producer, Diana Alvarez
Executive producers, Kathleen Kennedy, John Madden, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Micheal Sieger
Director of photography, Janusz Kaminski
Senior visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri
Production designers, Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg
Editor, Michael Kahn
Music by John Williams
Filmgoers are off to a fantastic, fortunate start of the summer movie season in June and July, 2016, as the two best films so far this year have been released in consecutive weeks—-first, Gary Ross’ superb, instant-classic Civil War drama “Free State of Jones” on Friday, June 24, and now, one week later, Steven Spielberg’s equally-excellent, also-instant-classic fantastical, wondrous, breathtaking, heartfelt and emotionally positive, upbeat and spirit-lifting fantasy drama “The BFG” (for Big Friendly Giant, the lead character), based on the equally wonderful classic children’s book of the same name by Roald Dahl.
Quite interestingly, Roald Dahl—a kindred spirit and creative soulmate to Steven Spielberg on every level, thus creating a perfect combination of fantasy-oriented minds to bring this book and film to life—saw his gentle, pleasing and uplifting children’s book “The BFG” first published in 1982—the same year that Spielberg’s similarly-themed “E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial” was released to equal universal, widespread acclaim. That’s quite notable on many levels—the book, “E.T.” and the film version of “The BFG” all deal with similar themes of childhood abandonment, loneliness, needs for friendship and companionship, lost mothers and fathers, making new friends from far different worlds, finding someone or something to care about and love amid real-life complications of life, coming to terms with separation and newfound emotions of friendship, love and separation, and bridging the gaps between the mundane everyday human worlds and otherworldly worlds of fantasy, aliens and mysterious creatures. And, on top of all of those similarities, “E.T.” and the film version of “The BFG” were written by the same ultra-talented writer, the wonderfully kind-hearted, kid-oriented and additional Dahl kindred soulmate, Melissa Mathison. Alas, sadly, Melissa Mathison died on Nov. 4, 2015, from cancer at the too-young age of 65, and she did not live to see the release of “The BFG,” which will be her final film credit. Appropriately, and emotionally, the film is dedicated to Mathison.
A good starting point to praise “The BFG”—a film deserving of praise at every creative level, and a film, it should be noted, that will appeal to all audiences—fantasy and fantasy film fans, literary fans, fantasy literary fans, non-regular-fantasy fans, and all ages and demographics—is to note that the movie was indeed written by the talented Melissa Mathison. Rarely has a screenwriter connected to children, teens and adults and fantasy and non-fantasy fans on such a regular basis in regards to producing consistently entertaining, emotionally moving and positive, endearing films. Mathison wrote the screenplays for “The Black Stallion,” Carroll Ballard’s classic 1979 film; “The Indian in the Cupboard,” also based on a children’s book, which was released as a film in 1995; “E.T.,” as noted; and the under-rated “The Escape Artist,” which was also released in 1982. Mathison also wrote “Kundun,” a film about the Dalai Lama, which was released in 1997.
That’s quite a resume, and Mathison brings all of her charms, humor, insight and particular understanding of childhood emotions, themes, feelings, moods and senses of adventure and longing to “The BFG.” At times poignant and wistful, other times entertainingly goofy and funny, other times dramatic and emotional, and throughout, always wondrous, fantastical and dream-like (dreams are part of the story, so that particular theme is appropriate and fitting), Mathison’s script maintains a smart, intelligent balance between drama, comedy, adventure, fantasy and wonder, so the film is consistently not just entertaining, but thoughtful, exciting, suspenseful, funny and just always fun to watch. Add in the aforementioned themes about childhood and growing up, and all the attendant emotions that go along with those themes, and “The BFG” amazingly becomes an entertaining fantasy film that works, operates and connects to audiences on several levels. The film accomplishes all of this much like the similarly-excellent “Alice Through the Looking Glass” from just a couple of weeks ago. And Mathison is smart enough to accomplish all of this in her script by adhering to the original spirit, sense of fun and adventure, and equally-perceptive understanding of children and children’s stories that Roald Dahl brought to all of his spirited work.
Producer Frank Marshall and longtime collaborator with Spielberg, according to the studio production notes, says, “Dahl’s stories are not just happy-go-lucky fantasies. There’s a lot of humor to them, but there’s also a little bit of a dark side. He walks on the edge. They’re a little scary, and I think that’s what appeals to people.”
Spielberg, in the production notes, agrees, saying, “It was very brave of him to introduce that combination of darkness and light which was so much Walt Disney’s original signature in a lot of his earlier works like ‘Dumbo,’ ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella.’ Being able to be scary and redemptive at the same time, and teach a lesson, an enduring lesson, to everyone—it was a wonderful thing for Dahl to have done, and it was one of the things that attracted me to want to direct this Dahl book.”
Roald Dahl wrote “The BFG,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (the original title of that book), “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda.” His books have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide.
“The BFB” tell the simple tale of a likeable, even lovable, quiet and nice young girl, Sophie, who, alas, is an orphan, and who, one night, against the warnings of the adults around her, ventures out onto a balcony at her downtown orphanage to see just what the world looks like in the middle of the night—a nightworld she had been warned could be full of scary things, dangerous things and all sorts of creepy unknown things. Well, wouldn’t you know it, the adults were quite right—during Sophie’s venture onto the balcony, she happens to see an actual, real giant creeping around downtown, delivering dreams to sleeping children! The giant, known only as “the big friendly giant,” thus “the BFG,” sees Sophie, and, worried that she’ll reveal his identity and existence, even, doesn’t know what to do, so he scoops her up and takes her back to Giant Country, a mysteriously, magically remote, nearly unreachable land far, far away from Sophie’s seemingly safe downtown orphanage. Once in Giant Country, Sophie is at first scared, but she soon learns to love and respect the BFG, for it turns out he’s not dangerous, not scary, not creepy, and similar a kind, somewhat Forrest Gumpish, somewhat slow, easygoing, caring, nice and even playful man with a heart and a soul as big as his body. Oh, and he’s friendly, too.
However, BFG’s neighboring giants are not quite so nice and friendly. Bigger than BFG, and a thousand times more ugly, loud, dumb, obnoxious, rude, mean, arrogant, wild, barbaric and nasty, it turns out that besides having horrible personalities, the other giants actually, uh, er, eat people. Including cute 10-year-old orphaned girls! Sophie’s once-safe hideout at BFG’s Hobbit- and Middle Earth-like and Rube Goldberg-like cave dwelling—all passages, secret compartments, secret doors, contraptions, hidden ponds full of actual dreams, and all types of gizmos, doodads, and mysterious bottles of actual dreams—becomes dangerous, as the giants literally smell her presence and make life terrible for BFG, all the while tearing apart his safe, comfortable home in an attempt to find Sophie and eat her! That’s Dahl’s dark side coming through. But Dahl’s dark side, and Spielberg’s film version of that dark side in the movie, are always careful enough not to be too dark, or too scary, because the book and the film are, indeed, made for children and fans of quality kids’ movies and quality, positive fantasy and fairy tales. Thus, if the proceedings were too dark, that would spoil the mood. Dahl and Spielberg—master storytellers always operating at their highest levels in their art—know just when to pull back on the darkness, and introduce a little light into the proceedings to maintain that always-present sense of hope, goodness and positivity. Dahl and Spielberg are, in the end, telling a fairy tale with a happy ending, and that’s not giving anything away. That’s a positive aspect in this context, and masters like Dahl and Spielberg—again, a classic match here—know just how to keep that balance of dark and light, good and bad, scary and entertaining. (Roald Dahl passed away in 1990 at the age of 74.)
“Steven has always gravitated towards stories about families, which is one of the reasons his films have resonated with so many people,” says executive producer Kathleen Kennedy in the studio notes.
When reading Dahl’s book, Mathison was drawn to the bond between Sophie and the BFG. “It is a very sweet relationship,” she said, “But they actually start off a little combative and are suspicious of one another and even have their own little power struggles. But from the moment they have a plan and move forward as partners, there’s just so much love between them. It’s a wonderful little love story.”
Spielberg has been a fan of Dahl’s for years, and in fact had read the book to his own children when they were younger. “It’s a story about friendship, it’s a story about loyalty and protecting your friends and it’s a story that shows that even a little girl can help a big giant solve his biggest problems,” he says, according to the studio.
Dahl created stories to tell his children and grandchildren, but was always hesitant to write any of them down, something with which the director could relate. “When I told my kids stories that they were especially fond of, they would beg me to make a movie about it,” Spielberg says. “Fortunately Dahl did eventually agree to share his stories with the world, and we’re all the better because of it.”
In the film, as time goes by, Sophie—wonderfully played by film newcomer Ruby Barnhill in a fittingly under-stated, controlled and quietly realistic manner—learns that BFG is indeed not just friendly, kind-hearted and lovable, but he actually fulfills an important role in the world. Sophie, soon drawn to the caring BFG, forms a friendship with the giant and even helps BFG on his adventures and his tasks in the world. Soon, though, danger closes in, as the other giants plan on leaving Giant Country and attacking the general populace, whom they simply want to eat. Sophie and BFG make a daring quest to alert the highest officials they can—the Queen! And BFG’s uniquely imaginative, funny and expertly blocked and staged introduction to polite society at the Queen’s Palace is a thoroughly funny and enjoyable sequence that offers up some very basic and base comic relief, but also serves to, eventually, move the story to a satisfying conclusion.
Mark Rylance, fresh off his stellar performance in Spielberg’s excellent “Bridge of Spies” from 2015—interestingly, that was one of the best films of 2015; Spielberg is on just one continuous roll, for years now—turns in yet another wonderfully talented, creative performance as BFG. This is a unique performance, as Rylance himself is not truly seen on the film as looking like himself—the filmmakers used literally state-of-the-art performance-capture technology, in which the actor acts out movement and facial expressions in the studio and those movements are adapted via computer technology to present a fantastical character on screen—similar to what Andy Serkis accomplished as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films and as “King Kong” in Peter Jackson’s remake of that film.
In fact, it was the talented, create visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri who oversaw the amazing special effects in “The BFG”—and Letteri comes straight from Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking, innovative effects company, Weta Digital. Among the films that Letteri has worked on are “Avatar” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” among many films, both of which used groundbreaking technology.
Letteri and his crew of hundreds and hundreds of talented, hard-working—and usually under-appreciated–effects artists also brought something new to their work on “The BFG.”
“For much of the film, Sophie is a little girl in this land of fantasy which is inhabited by giants, but we gave Steven the ability to shoot the movie as if the whole thing was live-action so as to bridge the gap between the virtual worlds and the digital worlds,” Letteri says. Previous films featuring performance-capture technology like “Avatar” or “The Adventures of Tin Tin” were shot on a very sparse set where the actors had to imagine their surroundings. However, with “The BFG,” Spielberg shot much of the film on actual sets constructed for the film, utilizing actual, real, on-set sets, lights, costumes, actors and props—all of which were integrated with the performance-capture and myriad other special effects, according to the studio.
Spielberg also relied on Simulcam, an idea originally created by director James Cameron on “Avatar.” With Simulcam, the filmmakers pre-record a performance and then play it back through the camera monitor so that the camera operators could actually see the virtual performance unfolding in real time as they’re photographing the live-action scene. By combining the two, they’re able to make decisions and frame and actually even cue actions based on what’s happening in the virtual world.
According to the studio, “This new process afforded the director the opportunity to film actors in performance-capture suits acting on the same set with the film’s human characters, and it was especially important to Spielberg that Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance have interaction with one another.”
Thus, through the mists of special effects, technology and actual acting talent, Barnhill and Rylance do achieve an acting chemistry in the film-which is essential regarding the development of their friendship in the story—despite the reality that Barnhill is acting as a real, live human being and Rylance’s presence as BFG is largely the result of performance-capture, effects and technology wizardry.
Rylance, through voice, expressions, movement, presence and character—all basic elements of acting—creates a unique, lovable being in BFG that audiences will come to love and adore.
“Ruby is a very imaginative young woman and just a complete natural actress,” says Rylance, according to the studio. “I learned from her really, as you do from all the young people. Her ability to take very complicated technical notes from Steven and make them natural is just miraculous, just remarkable.”
And the feeling was mutual. “Working with Mark was really lovely. He’s always got a smile on his face and he’s kind to me all of the time,” Barnhill says. “And, I think we have quite a good relationship, almost like Sophie and the BFG.”
It is this natural chemistry—between the actors and between the characters they play—that eventually form the foundation, the essence and the center of the movie. The main themes, messages and morals that come through are that adults need to understand that children can feel loneliness, alienation, separation, longing, sadness and other deeper emotions—most especially those children who have lost a parent or even both parents, as in Sophie’s case. And another message is that other adults in those kids’ lives need to step in and step up and provide the care, giving, help, guidance, affection, attention—and love—to those children in need. And there’s a general, underlying message that adults need to care for and look after all children, in general, all of the time—the same messages that are at the heart of “The Black Stallion,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “E.T.” and, again, “The BFG.”
In the end, and it’s not giving anything away, Sophie and BFG come to realize that there are other, good, caring people in the world who indeed care for them, care about them, and even love them. And what better, what more uplifting, more positive message, theme and moral can people leave a movie theater with—that, somewhere in the world, there is someone who cares about you, who will always look after you, and who will always love you. Moviegoers will leave “The BFG” with this positive, uplifting feeling swirling in and around their heads, hearts and souls, and, in the world of moviegoing, well, you can’t ask for much more than that.