Cannes Film Review: Steven Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’

'The BFG' Review - Cannes Film
Courtesy of Disney

An all-digital Mark Rylance wins over audiences with his big, big heart in a forbidden-friendship story that serves as Steven Spielberg's 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' for an all-new generation.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that giants really exist. That they galumph around London, ’round about the witching hour, plucking kids from orphanage windows as a late-night snack. That one among them has misgivings about all this “cannybullism” and might actually make a pretty good friend, if given the chance. Wouldn’t you like to know about it? That’s the beauty of Roald Dahl’s “The BFG,” as brought to life by recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance: You believe. No matter how fantastical the tale (and it gets pretty out-there at points), this splendid Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation makes it possible for audiences of all ages to wrap their heads around one of the unlikeliest friendships in cinema history, resulting in the sort of instant family classic “human beans” once relied upon Disney to deliver.

Dahl’s widely read and nearly universally revered novel began its journey to becoming a Spielberg movie some 25 years ago, at roughly the same time the director released one of his few duds, the cacophony that was 1991’s garish Peter Pan rehash, “Hook.” That film served up more bad ideas than good, but among its takeaway lessons was the notion that magic only works so long as children believe, and here we see the principle put into practice. Though waiting more than a couple of decades meant losing out on the idea of casting Robin Williams as the eponymous “Big Friendly Giant” (a choice that would have altered the film’s chemistry entirely), it’s just as well that Spielberg waited, for technology has finally caught up to the project’s ambition, allowing Rylance to credibly become a 24-foot-tall “runt” — the smallest (by far) in a race of performance-capture giants.

“The BFG” is gonna be huge. That much practically goes without saying: With Spielberg at the helm, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” screenwriter Melissa Mathison at the typewriter (though she died last November) and Dahl’s wonderful imagination — and vocabulary — at the fore, the film has ginormous box office potential. Still, without any bona-fide movie stars or franchise characters to drive worldwide audiences’ desire to see it, “The BFG” won’t have an easy time getting anywhere near the 20 highest-grossing films of all time (a list where Spielberg presently holds last place, with “Jurassic Park”).

Fortunately, “The BFG” bears far more in common with “E.T.” than “Hook,” representing yet another opportunity for a misunderstood young person — in this case, parentless 10-year-old Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), who’s whisked from her orphanage window and spirited off to Giant Country — to connect with a creature whom her fellow human beings simply wouldn’t understand. For a certain generation, “E.T.” will always stand as the ultimate children’s movie, and while it certainly belongs in the pantheon, there has always been something deeply unsettling about the way the story veered from an intergalactic bonding opportunity to a panicky fable about how humans inevitably ruin everything (a flaw that subbing walkie-talkies for guns simply couldn’t fix).

Here, it’s the nine other giants — a nasty, irritable lot, easily twice the BFG’s size, with names like Fleshlumpeater, Bonecruncher and Meatdripper, and with teeth the size of tombstones — who pose a threat, gumbling at the idea of fraternizing with their food. (Whether the BFG has adopted Sophie as his pet or vice versa is a matter open to debate, though either way, it’s a charming idea for kids.) The BFG may have adopted a more enlightened diet, subsisting entirely on a stinky vegetable called Snozzcumbers that make lima beans sound downright delicious, but the rest still prefer a nice human delicacy. And just as sensitive as the BFG’s big ears are to sounds, so too is the mammoth schnozz of giant leader Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) to the odors of a potential human treat.

But Sophie isn’t easily intimidated, and fortunately, her courage is infectious in what might otherwise have been a film far too frightening for anyone Sophie’s age or younger. The BFG hadn’t exactly planned what to do with Sophie after snatching her from the orphanage, although anticipating the sort of reaction that befell E.T. (where frightened humans might capture him and put him in a zoo), it’s clear that he can’t leave her to go spilling about the existence of giants on “the tellytelly bunkum box and the radio squeaker.” Spielberg withholds a proper introduction till the pair get to Giant Country, but endears us to the character straightaway by revealing the conspicuous creature’s ability to hide in plain sight, as the BFG uses his best nighttime ninja moves to evade detection in London.

While the other giants have been designed largely from scratch (and as such, look somewhat more convincing to the eye), with the BFG, there’s an undeniably resemblance to Rylance. If anything, his features have merely been distorted to suit his new dimensions: as tall as a soccer goal is wide, with hands the size of grocery pallets, huge elephant-scale ears and a nose that would be right at home on Mount Rushmore. As appealingly sensitive as Rylance’s features may be, this funhouse-mirror reconfiguration takes some adjustment on our part, throwing off some of the forced-perspective gags in the early getting-to-know-you scenes back at his cave — which looks not altogether different from certain Hobbit sets imagined by his “The Adventures of Tintin” collaborator Peter Jackson.

Jackson also introduced Spielberg to the technology that made “The BFG” possible, and it’s thanks to Joe Letteri and the WETA performance capture team that Rylance — a character actor whose impact often relies on his ability to under-play any given role — succeeds in imbuing his digital avatar with subtlety and nuance (the total opposite of what Williams likely would have brought to the part). With no offense intended to mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis, it’s exciting to see someone else driving one of these virtual performances, although without Williams in the role, there’s no telling how many laughs were lost along the way.

What humor “The BFG” does offer derives almost directly from Dahl’s novel, most of it owing to the giant’s “squiggly” way of speaking in a dialect known as “gobblefunk.” Meanwhile, Mathison’s script excels more at deepening the connection between Sophie and the BFG than at cracking jokes along the way. If anything, she seems to be toning down some of Dahl’s more outrageous gags, including a scene in which Buckingham Palace erupts in a round of “whizzpoppers” (one can only imagine how Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers might have taken this flatulent set piece in another direction). But she has also invented the film’s single best scene, elaborating on the fact that the BFG tries to compensate for the other giants’ human-gobbling antics by blowing pleasant dreams through the windows of sleeping children.

At Sophie’s insistence, the BFG takes the girl along on a dream-gathering expedition, hopping through a magical pool to Dream Country, an upside-down world where “phizzwizards” — literally, the stuff that dreams are made of — circle the branches of a giant tree like Apple’s mesmerizing “Flurry” screensaver. Together, girl and giant chase these phosphorescent blurs around like so many elusive butterflies. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a downright hypnotic sequence, giving longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams the richest moment to heighten via a fully orchestral score that manages to enchant without relying so heavily as usual on a simple recurring musical theme.

Those who know Dahl’s book understand how vital dreams are to resolving the story’s giant-human détente, and this hypnotic “dream sequence” — alongside a couple other scenes set in the BFG’s dream-mixing workshop — makes Sophie’s fanciful solution feel nearly as plausible as the idea that she’s befriended the planet’s only benevolent giant. The finale, which brings the BFG face-to-face with the Queen of England, finds Spielberg stepping out of his comfort zone into the realm of farce, and though adults will find this section to be royally silly, it’s a vast improvement on similar scenes in “Minions” and “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties.”

These are hardly the comparisons Spielberg might be aiming for with what is clearly designed to be a late-career classic, though enlisting the Queen’s assistance is about as far as one can get from the problematic last act of “E.T.” — which is not to say that watching Her Majesty rip “whizzpoppers” is necessarily a better solution. By this point in their collaboration, Spielberg and d.p. Janusz Kaminski have arrived at lighting and framing their footage in such a way that it feels downright authoritative, as if no better vantage could be had on the moment in question. Here, that quality allows Barnhill (who looks like a less-precious version of “Matilda” star Mara Wilson) and the virtual Rylance to convincingly coexist, especially on the gorgeous emerald-green steppes of Giant Country, where Spielberg invites us to believe our eyes.

Cannes Film Review: Steven Spielberg's 'The BFG'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 14, 2016. Running time: 115 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Studios release of a Disney, Amblin Entertainment, Reliance Entertainment presentation, in association with Walden Media, of a Kennedy/Marshall Co. production. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer. Executive producer, Kathleen Kennedy, John Madden, Kristie Macosco Krieger, Michael Siegel. Co-producer, Adam Somner.

Crew

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay, Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Road Dahl. Camera (color), Janusz Kaminski; editor, Michael Kahn; music, John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg; costume designer, Joanna Johnston.

With

Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader.

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  1. justin stark says:

    “BFG”: a ridiculous Pile of Crap. Schlock-meister Spielberg finally reaches ‘The Bottom’.

  2. The BFG says:

    I remember reading this in 5th Grade. Actually, the teacher read it to us; but it felt like a requirement. Naturally, I grew to love it. (Chris Hader voices one of the giants & the guy who played the Russian spy from Bridge of Spies will be voicing the BFG.)

  3. Adam Zanzie says:

    Good review, Mr. Debruge — although I, too, don’t understand why you damn “E.T.” with faint praise by labeling it “unsettling”, “problematic” and a film “about how humans ruin everything”.

    That’s not what “E.T.” was about. How long has it been since you last watched it? The film was not about how humans “ruin everything”, but about how humans, at their very best, can band together to accomplish great things. Elliot, his siblings and his friends work hard to get E.T. home. Mary Gradually becomes supportive of her son’s efforts. And even Keys (the Peter Coyote character) turns out to be not a villain at all, but a warm father figure, delighted by Elliot’s discovery of this alien, and confessing to him, “I’m glad he found you first.”

    Watch that movie again. It’s not at all about “how humans ruin everything”. More than just a good movie for children, it was one of the best movies ever made.

  4. John says:

    When adjusting for inflation, Spielberg has 3 movies in the Top 20. E.T., Jaws and Jurassic Park.

  5. Steve says:

    “‘E.T.’ will always stand as the ultimate children’s movie, and while it certainly belongs in the pantheon, there has always been something deeply unsettling about the way the story veered from an intergalactic bonding opportunity to a panicky fable about how humans inevitably ruin everything.”

    E.T. was not a “children’s movie” in the sense that term is usually meant. It was about aspects of childhood that could be identified by children and adults. And, for me, to think that it turned into a “panicky fable about how humans inevitably ruin everything” is to so severely miss the most important ideas and feelings I saw the film trying to convey that I am not even sure we saw the same film…

  6. Alex says:

    Are there any black people or homosexuals in it? Did the women make less money then the men?

  7. macd says:

    In other words, Uncle Stevie has made a children’s film about cannibalism. Five years ago, Uncle Marty made a kiddie movie about film preservation. “The BFG” will be this year’s “Hugo”: respectful reviews, empty theaters.

    • EricJ says:

      Hugo was about film preservation, but because Spielberg went out and made–ick!–a MOTION CAPTURE CGI about Tintin the same month, our boiling Robert Zemeckis hate finally went nuclear, and we started railing against any “big director” who went out and made “kiddie films”, unquote.
      Never mind all the Scorsese “Where are the gangsters?” jokes, ask an audience who hadn’t seen Hugo, and they’d say “No, I don’t like CGI films.”(sic) That’s where our heads were, back then.

      As it is, good Roald Dahl films are hard to come by (the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka is the closest thing we have to true Dahl on film, and Dahl hated it, with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a close second and it wasn’t even his book), but I’ll trust Spielberg with having read enough of them.

  8. Mark says:

    Nice to see yet another animated cartoon in the theaters.

  9. Rudy Mario says:

    Interesting review. Other reviews of this movie from Cannes are mostly negative. I found the last two films of Spielberg very boring. Hope he is back to his old mastery of making interesting and entertaining movies.

    • me says:

      Only boring people get bored.

      • B. says:

        The BFG was soooo good! Nobody should take what any of those pretentious people from Cannes have to say. They only praise movies that bore ppl & play themselves up as ‘intellectually elite’ so that ppl are scared to disagree with them. Like that Godard film last year. What a joke. Movies are made for people to watch. If nobody wants to watch your movie, then that’s not a sign of you being better than commercial filmmakers–it’s a sign of why you failed in life. Bye!

      • Rudy Mario says:

        …and inbred losers can not handle difference of opinions and tastes…

  10. David says:

    1991 was 25 years ago, not 15. TWO and half decades, not a decade and a half. :)

  11. inderweltsein says:

    This is only a “Walt Disney Studios release of a Disney … presentation” in North America..

    For example, in Cannes (and France) (and I guess the writer knows it), this is a handled by Metropolitan FilmExport.
    In the past, for festival reviews, both the local distributor, the international seller, and the US distributor were named by Variety, if I am not mistaken. Not anymore. Why..

  12. Doc Michaels says:

    Well at least we know Debrugge thinks ET is “problematic” and “unsettling”. I’ll take this gushing review with a grain of salt.

    • B. says:

      ET is one of the greatest movies ever! :D (Debrugge is obviously just jealous of Spielberg. But to be fair, if I was stuck reviewing film instead of making/starring in films, I’d be depressed too.)

  13. Simon says:

    That’s not how it played in Cannes, Peter…

  14. Michael Klossner says:

    The second paragraph says 1991 was 15 years ago. No, it was 25 years ago.

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