While entirely passable, Roald Dahl's The BFG seems unlikely to become a favorite movie for anyone, young or old. It's largely lifeless, which is unusual for fantasy material birthed by Roald Dahl or directed by Steven Spielberg, much less a combination of the two. A children's story shouldn't feel this stodgy and dutiful, but there's a reason Dahl's 1982 novel has taken so long to make it to the big screen: it's simply not the stuff of propulsive drama or high-spirited adventure. The BFG's gentle charms, of eccentric verbosity and simple characters, are pretty well bound to its pages.
The tale begins in a London orphanage, where long shadows begin to loom over lonely young Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill). Casting those shadows is a scary-at-first but actually gentle giant (Mark Rylance, in voice and motion capture), a dreamcatcher who makes deliveries into "human beans"'s heads by way of a long trumpet. Fearing exposure, the one and only BFG ("Big Friendly Giant") kidnaps Sophie, who keeps a grip on her copy of Nicholas Nickleby, the better for cheap Dickensian allusion. Sadly, Sophie and the sweetly doddering BFG don't make fast friends, but they certainly do make slow ones, eating almost half of the film's running time in neighborly courtship that's dull and near-tensionless.
A hat trick of issues plague the first hour: the deadening blue chill of Janusz Kaminski's photography, the choice to make all of the giants CGI characters, and the undue weight that choice unfairly puts on Barnhill's competent but ordinary performance. Yes, the great actor Mark Rylance (Oscar winner for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies) is sort of there, all-in with vocals and part-in with facial expression and body language. But Spielberg faces the same issues that sunk his friend Robert Zemeckis through years of mo-cap duds: we may be a mile closer, but we're not quite out of the Uncanny Valley yet. This time, just call it Giant Country.
A twinkly John Williams score aims to prop up the whimsy, to no avail. It's the story's second movement that suddenly gooses the film to life. A trip to Buckingham Palace finds the sun rising (goodbye, blue); the preponderance of poorly animated giants in the rear view, replaced at last by three expert human actors (Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, and Rafe Spall) in living action; and Barnhill kicked into a higher gear. It's still too little to save an exposition-driven narrative that feels more low stakes than it should and far too late. Prior to this sequence, there's no sense that Dahl's novel excited Spielberg's imagination in the least. During it, we can at least feel his relief at having thermonuclear farts (sorry, "whizzpoppers") to generate guffaws.
The script by the late Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Black Stallion) preserves most of the novel in plot and, more crucially, the idiosyncratic diction of the BFG and his world. Some changes in the home stretch artfully dodge the implication of a Guantanamo Bay for giants, and Spielberg almost sorta kinda whips up a little magic in the cooking-up-a-dream sequence. Also, bullies are bad and to be confronted. And, um, friendship, am I right? On the whole, though, this BFG is a Best Forgotten Groaner.
Disney brings The BFG home in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD special edition that's a treat for the eyes and ears. The reference-quality image proves there's something about this film that serves it well on home screens: maybe it's that the animation somehow sees even more impressive on a TV screen (while retaining the character of its theatrical exhibition. The razor-sharp image shows great fidelity to the filmmaker's intent in terms of color (those greens really whizzpop) and contrast. Fine textures definitely rule the day here, however, despite many of them having been created in a computer rather than captured in photography.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix also gobsmacks. It's not surprising that a film about giants excels in LFE, with thunderous footsteps and the like. With Gary Rydstrom and Skywalker Sound at work, you know you're going to get a finely calibrated mix, with subtle effects and powerful ones placed for maximum dramatic effect, and ambience carefully thought out throughout the soundscape.
Kicking off the disc's bonus features, "Bringing The BFG to Life" (27:09, HD, hosted by Ruby Barnhill, finds the young star sharing her video diaries. Also contributing to this making-of featurette are director Steven Spielberg, Roald Dahl's daughter Lucy Dahl, executive producer Kathleen Kennedy, producer Frank Marshall, Mathison, Penelope Wilton, previs creative supervisor Josh Wassung, production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg, executive producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, Mark Rylance, supervising art director Grant van der Slagt, senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, motion capture supervisor Dejan Momcilovic, visual effects supervisor Guy Williams, Bill Hader, supervising sound designer/re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom, costume designer Joanna Johnston, producer Sam Mercer, property master Jimmy Chow, Rafe Spall, and Rebecca Hall.
"The Big Friendly Giant and Me" (1:55, HD) is a brief new animated short in illustrated storybook style.
"Gobblefunk: The Wonderful Words of the BFG" (3:16, HD) constitutes a cheeky animated trivia quiz with clips.
"Giants 101" (4:54, HD) focuses in on the theatrically rehearsed mo-cap process of the actors playing the giants, with comments from Marshall, Spielberg, senior animation supervisor Jamie Beard, Jemaine Clement, movement coach Terry Notary, and Hader.
Lastly, the very sweet "Melissa Mathison: A Tribute" (5:54, HD) allows executive producer Kathleen Kennedy, executive producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, producer Frank Marshall, Mathison, Spielberg, production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg to honor their late colleague. The featurette also includes a wealth of lovely B-roll of Mathison on the set, including her final on-set birthday celebration.
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