The BFG (2016)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader
The BFG is Steven Spielberg’s first official box office flop, which is a rare thing because ever since he kicked off Summer Blockbusters back in 1975 with the creation of Jaws (1975), he’s been on the good side of box office success for most of his career. Even his bad ones make money, just look at the disastrous Indiana Jones sequel, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) or Spielberg’s failed attempt at a war comedy, 1941 (1979) both made their money back even though they stunk. So The BFG (2016) is a landmark movie for Spielberg, but only because its his biggest failure. Yet, did it deserve to fail? Is it a stinker? We’ve seen Spielberg half-ass a movie haven’t we? Just the other day I was watching The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and realized how truly lame it actually is. Sure it’s got gee whiz special effects, double the dinosaurs (oh wow, two T-REX’s!) and lot’s of action, but at its core, the tepid script doesn’t even compare to Jurassic Park (1993) in terms of overall quality, there was no meat with those potatoes, dare I say no heart! But we forgive Spielberg because then he turns around and makes another great film and well, we forget all about his last bad one. But is The BFG one of his bad ones? Was Spielberg half-assing it with The BFG? Why did it tank so spectacularly at the box office?
The BFG is all about this little girl called Sophie who resides at an orphanage in London. She likes to stay up late at night reading, organizing the mail and doing all sorts of things while everybody is sound asleep. She’s a night owl. On one of these late nights, she sees a giant walking through the fog filled streets of her sleepy London town. Realizing he’s been seen, the giant snatches Sophie and takes her with him to the “Land of the Giants”. While at first Sophie is scared, she soon befriends the big friendly giant. Together they go on dream catching adventures. Sadly, there are other giants who are bullies and want to eat Sophies and all the little boys and girls in London. Sophie and The BFG must devise a way to stop their cannibal ways. Can Sophie and her Giant find a way to stop them?
The BFG is based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name. Dahl was also the author behind such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Witches and Matilda, all of which have also been adapted to films. So just to make thinks clear here, this film is based on the book of a beloved author, directed by one of the greatest directors of all time and produced by Disney the most successful movie studio at the moment. So why did it flop? I was curious about this myself, the trailers made the film look magical, and truth be told it is. It’s a fairy tale that involves giants, the origin of dreams and true friendship. It felt like a mix between Peter Pan and Jack and the Beanstalk. So, with all these good things going for it, why the failure? I guess the only true reason I can think of is that it’s not all that exciting. Sure not every movie has to be action packed. In my book, there’s also space for films that are quieter in nature, films that slow things down, that feel like someone is whispering a story under the covers of your bed in the middle of the night. The problem is that today’s audiences are so jaded, so used to superheroes smashing buildings in half, that when a film comes along about a gentle, friendly giant, an old man who weaves our dreams together, then it’s considered too slow. Then the films target audience tunes out. And it’s true, this is a slow paced film, but it’s my opinion that this is exactly what Spielberg was aiming for, a sleepy sort of fairy tale. So be ready for that kind of film.
What took me by surprise where the themes of the film. I had no idea that this movie was going to be all about belief, faith and God. Oh wait could the letters B.F.G. stand for the words belief, faith and God? Could I be stretching it? I don’t think so, the films themes are fairly obvious. This movie is quite similar to the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe books, they address issues of faith, they push the idea of believing in a magical, eternal being that’s watching over all of us, taking care of us, wishing goodness upon our lives. That this magical being is there even though we can’t see him, that all we have to do is “feel him” in our hearts. That all we have to do is take that magical leap of faith, blindly believing the notion and that if we do, then he will be there when we need him the most, when we are in pain, lonely or sad. Thankfully, Sophie is inquisitive. After all her name is Sophie, an allusion to philosophy which in itself means the search for knowledge which explains why Sophie likes to ask lots of questions to the giant, like how old he is. The giant tells her he’s an eternal, that he’s always existed, the biggest allusion to God in the entire film, which is why there’s no doubt in my mind the giant in The BFG represents ‘God’.
I’ve always found the idea of God a fascinating one. Every society, every culture has their idea of God and to me that’s fascinating on its own. How no matter what country we are from or what society we grow up in, we all end up thinking that there’s something bigger than us, something more powerful. The idea that there’s an eternal, magical being watching over all of us is a comforting one and I understand why a lot of people choose to believe in it. I personally can’t blindly believe in something I’ve never seen. I can be open to the idea of it, or the possibility, but I can’t say ‘God’ exists because there’s no way of proving it. Which is why it rubs me the wrong way when this type of idea is reinforced, especially in children’s films, as if they’re trying to incept these notions early in childhood. At one point Sophie jumps of a balcony because she “feels” the giant and “knows” he will be there to rescue her. Of course the giant appears and saves her, but in real life, it would be another story. No magical giant is going to come out of nowhere and save you, in real life you have to save yourself. In real life you jump of a balcony, you’ll end up as a big grease spot on the pavement. The point the movie is trying to make is you have to take that leap of faith and believe in God. You have to believe he’ll be there to save you. “I do believe in fairies, I do, I do” comes to mind for some reason, yet fairies are a fantasy, same as this movie. The reason I dissect these themes is not because I’m nitpicking, it’s because movies are about us. Same as books or songs, they always have something to say about human nature.
But anyway, theological themes aside, I still managed to enjoy the film because it can be interpreted in other ways as well. Maybe that magical being watching over Sophie represents an adult, your father, your mother, or whoever chooses to take care you and guide you through life. I chose to see the film this way. Sophie is an orphan, and The BFG chooses to bring some goodness into her life, he felt her loneliness and her need and chose to be a friend to her, the father that she never had, a step father of sorts and though step fathers and mothers are often times vilified in films and books, a lot of times they can be more of a father and a mother then the biological one. So that’s another way to see the film. Ultimately, I think this movie was actually rather sweet. Basically, an old man and a little girl find a way to connect, to become friends in spite of generational barriers. They learn to appreciate each other past generational gaps. The old have a lot to learn from the old, and vice versa, so that’s another level on which the film works.
Technically speaking, the film is amazing, the special effects flawless. The giants look truly gigantic. Spielberg here once again demonstrates his uncanny ability to work with children. Ruby Barnhill does an amazing job here playing Sophie, she comes off as an intelligent child, who likes to read and use her head to come up with solutions for any given situation. The problem with the film is that though Spielberg works great with children and has made some wonderful children’s movies like Hook (1991) and E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), I think The BFG is a tough pill for kids to swallow in terms of pacing; many children will undoubtedly find it “boring”. I was watching it in a theater filled with about 10 people and this woman kept telling her boyfriend she wanted to leave because she couldn’t understand what was happening on screen. That she was bored and this was a grown woman! She was pleading to her boyfriend to leave the theater! They did about half way through. I guess your enjoyment of this film will depend on your attention span. If it has a short fuse, you’ll probably walk. If on the other hand you have patience and can take a shorter paced film, you’ll probably stay and enjoy it.