“The BFG has some seriously inspiring, magical moments”
Steven Spielberg’s The BFG has some seriously inspiring, magical moments, all of which encapsulated in a film that, while a visual spectacle and frequently grin-inducing, shows its most problematic side in terms of structuring and pacing. However, its biggest accomplishment is finally getting motion capture animation to look, feel, and operate like real, engrossing animation and not as if we’re watching ugly, dazed-looking animated/human hybrids unsteadily sway and appear glassy-eyed as they communicate and operate in a world larger than themselves.
Motion capture animation is a style of animation that involves actors getting fitted for special suits and acting out the motions and physical aspects of their respective characters in the film. It’s a much more refined way to cast an animated film in the sense that you’re no longer simply looking for a serviceable voice, but also a performer who looks as if he or she is the character they are playing. Normally, motion capture animation – even in its best example The Polar Express as much as its worst with Disney’s Mars Needs Moms – produces characters that appear as if they always have a shocked or stunned look on their face, or are never entirely still and subtly sway and rock in the background.
Who better to produce the best motion capture animation movie than Steven Spielberg, who finds a way to make the film visually dazzling rather than visually distracting? It wasn’t until about a third of the way through the film that I had my suspicions that this film was done in the animated style, but then it caught up to me how much that BFG started looking like Mark Rylance.
The BFG, short for “big friendly giant” and based off of the Roald Dahl book, revolves around a plain orphan named Sophie (voiced by Ruby Barnhill), who gets taken from her strict orphanage by a towering, elderly figure (Rylance) who she eventually nicknames the “BFG.” The giant takes her away to his homeland known as Giant Country, but even by giant-standards, the BFG is smaller than his meaner, rougher, cruder counterparts. He is also illiterate and a bit bumbling as he finds ways to bend and alter words as if he’s a 1990s rapper’s ghostwriter (“crocodiles” becomes “crocodiddlys” and television becomes the “telly belly bunkum box”).
The BFG tells Sophie that he had to take her away from the orphanage because he knew she would tell others she saw a giant walk the streets late in the evening when she should’ve been asleep. In her newfound homeland, Sophie learns that the BFG’s main job is finding ways to enter others dreams, and his ultimate goal is to continue doing this and not be bothered or burdened by the larger giants, who are led by the grotesque Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement). Sophie has different plans – in addition to wanting her humongous friend to stand up to the other local behemoths, she wants him to come back to the city where she’s from and try to make an effort to assimilate there.
The comic and crude possibilities are there, but aside from some true-to-the-text material revolving around fart jokes caused by reversely carbonated beverages, Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison (who died in November 2015, making this her final film credit) keep things pleasantly mannered. They are both more bent on the chemistry between Sophie and the titular character rather than about the lunacy and the ripe potential for puns and mishaps due to the size differences of both protagonists.
Whether or not The BFG will please younger audiences, I am unsure, but the overall film, at times, feels offset by its lack of a plot. About halfway through the film, I realized that the story both starts and stops with the depth of the film’s characters, and while that is not at all a bad thing, when it comes to filling a two hour runtime based on warm, fuzzy feelings, one can see how both Spielberg and Mathison might’ve strained to keep the gears turning with this film. Part of the issue, I feel, is that the film starts too early (the BFG kidnaps Sophie only about ten minutes into the film, leaving nearly two hours to cover at that point) and winds up exhausting a lot of what its premise has to offer by the fifty-minute mark until the film finds a more evident sense of grounding when Sophie finally convinces the BFG to briefly leave his village.
The magic here is in the scene-stealing Mark Rylance, who’s powerful, unmistakable voice and cheerfully whimsical presence makes a lot of The BFG so engrossing and even fairly emotional. His spirit feels both childlike and comfortable in a background filled with beautiful aesthetics and an unmistakable sense of warmth. The entire film, for that matter, feels predicated off the same thing, and while it can questionably sustain a film, it does adequately merit a great deal of entertainment in the meantime.