The BFG - Cannes Film Festival 2016 Review
In 1982, Steven Spielberg released his most popular children’s films: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Much of the promotion for his new film The BFG, has been eager to link it to this earlier success. The BFG indeed had everything lined up right: a world-class director known for his extraordinary commercial success; a studio which (usually) excels in telling children’s stories; and as source material, a novel by the beloved writer Roald Dahl.
The cherry on the cake? Mark Rylance. Since his lead role in the TV series Wolf Hall, the actor’s popularity has undoubtedly been on the rise: he won an Oscar this year for his supporting role in Bridge of Spies, his first collaboration with Spielberg. Fame or not, Rylance is an extraordinary actor - and his casting as the titular BFG promised much.
What could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, a lot. The BFG may turn out to be this year’s biggest disappointment. It’s dull. It’s sloppily written. And, unforgivably for a film alleged to have a big budget, its effects are terrible. Rylance and Ruby Barnhill’s performances, far from bad, and Penelope Wilton’s charming appearance as the Queen, are not enough to save the film.
The BFG tells the story of Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a young girl living in a orphanage in London. The film is set at an unspecified time - it might be the 80s (‘Ronnie and Nancy’ are in the White House, the cars look from around that time) - it might be today (The Queen looks oldish - there’s a ‘Boris’ in a position of power - do they mean Johnson, or Yeltsin?). One night, Sophie is kidnapped by a giant, who takes her to the cave where he lives in Giant Country.
It soon becomes clear that the giant (known as the BFG for ‘Big Friendly Giant’) is nice enough (though a little dim-witted). He spends his nights catching, making and sending dreams to children, while his evil brothers (all much taller than him) eat kids instead.
Together, Sophie and the BFG cook up a plan to persuade the Queen to help them capture the evil giants and but a stop to their children-eating.
Scriptwriter Melissa Mathison (who passed away last November) faced a real challenge in adapting Dahl’s novel to film form. As she commented herself: “There’s no dramatic drive to it... It wasn’t as story driven, so we needed to create a narrative.” This is true - and the changes she did make were not enough. The film has no narrative tension; its series of events seem so random, and some of its sequences are so long, that it is difficult to maintain interest, even as a fan of the book.
The script also struggles to get us to like either Sophie or the BFG himself. Neither are given any significant backstory or opportunities to display their personality. We are told, rather than shown, that the BFG is friendly; that Sophie is miserable in her orphanage; and that both are lonely. There's also a bizarre and rather alarming backstory tacked on about Sophie's predecessor, a little boy who also was the BFG's friend and got eaten by the bigger giants. Does the BFG kidnap kids routinely for company? Why did he not save his friend from a horrible death? And why risk bringing anyone near this sort of danger again?
Added to this is the dialogue. Mathison chose to make the BFG speak in Gobblefunk, a language Dahl invented for the giants. Gobblefunk is essentially silly or funny-sounding versions of English words: think ‘cannybully’ for cannibals’ or ‘telly-telly bunkum box’ for television. The inclusion a few of these phrases in dialogue, if judiciously placed, might have been funny. Unfortunately, they make up most of Rylance’s lines. At first, it’s difficult to follow. Then, it’s really annoying. What worked so well on the page doesn’t at all on screen. In addition, the implication that the giant is none too clever because his language is different comes across as very snooty ('he hasn't received proper education/he hasn't been to school' Sophie apologises to the Queen).
Rylance does do a great job - he is as moving as could be under the circumstances, but unfortunately, that’s not very much. Aside from awful dialogue and poor plotting , the actor is also limited by his digital avatar. The character of the BFG looks horrendously fake; more like a giant plastic doll with the features of Mark Rylance, than a living, breathing being. The same is true of the other giants; of the sets, especially the streets of London, and the BFG’s cave; and even of Dream Country (where Sophie and the Giant go hunt for dreams). Giant Country, in contrast, looks impossibly dull for such a fantastical place - unremarkable, green hills. Why the effects are so terrible is bewildering, given that surely there must have been the funds to pay for the best. As a result, the film already looks aged.
Inexplicably, even soundtrack legend John Williams falters here - the score is really very bland.
There are a few bright spots. Ruby Barnhill is delightful as Sophie, and was an enlightened casting choice. The film’s last segment, set in Buckingham Palace, is significantly more entertaining. Wilton clearly relishes playing the monarch (and who can blame her, when she does it so well?). This part is mostly slapstick (farting Corgis, the palace staff struggling to accommodate to the BFG’s size) but fun enough to watch. And the meaner, bigger giants occasionally have entertaining lines (though they’re mostly a bit dull).
The BFG is no E.T.. It might still managed the latter’s commercial success, but it has none of its emotional potency. With so much talent on board, it’s a real puzzle as to where it went all wrong.
Marion Koob is The Digital Fix’s Cinema Editor. She will be tweeting throughout the festival @marionkoob.