REVIEW: "The BFG" ON NETFLIX
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic "The BFG" failed to strongly connect with audiences theatrically, which is kind of a shame, because the real place to experience Giant Country is the big screen. Now that the film's found its way to Netflix, it's worth seeking out if only for the visuals, which believably transport a human girl to a world occupied by stunningly lifelike animated titans (performed by actors using motion-capture). Sadly, the storytelling does not keep pace with the spectacle, and I sense that young children may quickly get bored by the film's groggy pace.
I think the biggest single issue with Melissa Mathison's adaptation of Dahl's book is that nearly everyone in the story lacks motivation. We mean precocious orphan Sophie (a wide-eyed and charming Ruby Barnhill), and then almost immediately, she's whisked away to Giant Country by the mysterious Big Friendly Giant (or BFG, played by Mark Rylance). Why does the BFG essentially kidnap her? Something about fearing that she will reveal his presence to the world, though it's not entirely clear, and ends up seeming pretty out of character for him, considering that in all other ways he's kindly and even meek.
The bond formed quickly between the giant and his new captive/roommate should be the emotional core of the film, and the final sequence that Spielberg includes indicates that he's well aware of this, and yet we don't really get a lot of time here to develop their relationship. It's not the technology's fault at all - in fact, the way Spielberg frames shots to include both human-scale Sophie and giant-scale BFG is ceaselessly inventive, and kind of virtuoso when it comes to action sequences.
It's just that we don't know enough about these characters, or have a sense for their inner lives. They kind of do things they need to do in order to get Sophie where she needs to be for more storylines to kick in. And there many, many storylines! We find out that the BFG had traveled to the human world to retrieve people's dreams, which he collects and files away in jars in a large underground archive. (He calls this his "work," treating it like a job, but it really seems like a bit more of a creepy predilection, honestly.) We find that Giant Country is occupied by other giants who are much larger and more aggressive than BFG (they call him "Runt") and wish to eat Sophie. (The "leader" of the evil giants, Fleshlumpeater, is wonderfully played, also in mo-cap, by an unrecognizable Jemaine Clement from "Flight of the Conchords.") PLUS there's a loooooooooong sub-plot about getting help from Queen Elizabeth II (played by Penelope Wilton, who will be very recognizable to you "Downton Abbey" fans.)
Any of these threads (well, maybe except the one about the Queen) could've worked as the focus of a "BFG" film, I suppose. They all feature Dahl's signature mix of whimsy and dark humor. But they're all kind of colliding here, without interacting with one another, and all of them eventually prove distracting from the friendship between a little girl and a giant. The result is a movie that's beautiful to look at, and fun in fits and starts, but that never coheres into a satisfying whole. The last sequence is very sweet and sentimental in that classic Spielberg style, but not emotional.
Title: "The BFG"
Where to Watch: Netflix
Running time: 117 minutes
Genre: Fantasy adventure