28 July 2016

The BFG review

I went into The BFG with expectations pretty much as low as they could be. I've loved the work of Roald Dahl ever since I was a child, but nothing about the trailers or TV spots for this film had me convinced that it was going to be anything more than an over-produced, dumbed-down version of a book that I've read more times than I care to admit. Any Americans reading might not understand this, but Roald Dahl is special over here in much the same way that I imagine Dr Seuss is over there, and the idea that one of his most well-known and beloved books might end up being the punchline to an already disappointing summer film season was almost too much to handle.

I can't explain how relieved I am to say that isn't the case. The BFG may not be a perfect movie, or even a particularly good one at times, but it's as accurate an adaptation of Dahl's book as could be expected - a quaint, fantastical, beautiful movie that wears its whimsy on its sleeve. And I loved it.

Not from the start, admittedly. Ignoring the chip on my shoulder I went in with, the opening of the film, which sees orphan Sophie kidnapped by the titular giant and taken to Giant Land after she sees him through the window, is oddly unengaging. This is partly thanks to a disconnect caused by the radical visual difference between the human Sophie and the highly stylised CGI of the BFG - they just don't look like they belong on the screen at the same time, which takes you out of the moment at first - but it's also thanks to an odd sense of pacing that has Sophie snatched before we've really settled into the film.

Once we have settled in, however, it's a very different matter entirely. The relationship that forms between Sophie and the BFG once they're in Giant Land is more than strong enough to overcome the visual disconnect between them, mostly thanks to Mark Rylance's performance as the BFG. He's everything the BFG is meant to be - kind, curious, affable, comforting, deceptively wise - but most importantly, he helps make the BFG feel very real in spite of being quite obviously not. It's a great, incredibly human performance, a brilliant use of motion-capture technology, and almost single handedly the reason that The BFG works as well as it does. He exists within the world as much as any character could, and by the time we've gotten to know him we are invested enough in he and his story to accept pretty much anything that Spielberg throws at us from that on.

A good job too, considering what the final act throws at audiences. The middle section of the film may be filled with what I truly believe show us Spielberg at his best - wonderful, magical, beautiful scenes that really capture the spirit of Dahl's work - but the last third brushes right up against "What the hell is even going on?", mostly thanks to how close it tries to stick to the book. This feeling doesn't last long thanks to how quickly The BFG is able to get things back on track (again, mostly thanks to Rylance's performance), but it does highlight the films biggest flaw - how poorly it's individual sections actually fit together.

Whether that will matter to you or not will ultimately depend on how you feel about the book. I'd imagine anyone with more than a passing familiarity with it will fall in love with The BFG in much the same way I did - those lacking that, however, are likely to be frustrated by a film that may have played to a bigger audience with more connective tissue and maybe even a somewhat substantial rewrite of the last act.

Which means I'd be lying if I tried to claim that The BFG is a great movie. It's too messy, too uneven, too flawed to be considered anything other than a minor work from a great filmmaker. But it's also a handy reminder that even a lesser Spielberg film is still a Spielberg film, full of the wonder and charm and sense of awe that you rarely see anymore. Sure, it's rough around the edges, and more than a little confused at times - but it's also earnest, bold, and has an enormous amount of heart.

Just like the BFG himself.

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