Ruby Barnhill in The BFG (Photo: Disney)
** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Steven Spielberg
STARS Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill
An adaptation of the beloved book by Roald Dahl, The BFG reminded me of the scene in (of all things) History of the World: Part I in which a bored Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) is presented with a wooden bathtub and mutters, “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice.” That, in a nutshell, is the same reaction that occurs when presented with this family film from no less than Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s presence immediately rekindles memories of that childhood masterpiece E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but this film is a far cry from that enduring piece of celluloid magic. Unlike that 1982 blockbuster, The BFG isn’t emotionally gripping or excitingly staged. It’s just … nice.
Say this for motion capture, though: It’s come a long way, baby. Yet while its application to human faces and expressions is vastly improved — compare the big friendly giant voiced by Mark Rylance here to the boring, stiff conductor voiced by Tom Hanks in 2004’s The Polar Express — it still isn’t always up to speed in other regards. Character movement and object definition often look graceless, and, unless Andy Serkis is somehow involved, the procedure still suffers from a distancing effect that’s long been conquered by just about every other form of animation.
Still, the limitations of motion capture are only part of the problem. More detrimental is the fact that the movie exhibits little of the subversive bite of other Dahl adaptations like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, and it exhibits even less of the excitement and sense of adventure we’ve come to expect from Spielberg when he’s in a playful (rather than Oscar-courting) mood. Even the patented Spielberg humor seems off, as the comic highlight (also in the book) is supposed to be a flatulent giant — a letdown when compared to, say, the fate of the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark or Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw comparing scars in Jaws. Many kids and even some adults will adore these gassy scenes and rate the entirety of The BFG as A-OK; others will look at this lumbering behemoth of a film and simply wonder WTF.