When a big name studio competes with itself, one of its projects is going to lose out regardless of intentions. In this case, Disney and Pixar opened Finding Dory on June 17, 2016, which instantly found its audience and became one of the hot tickets of the summer. On July 1, while Dory just kept on swimming, The BFG got lost in the shuffle. Lackluster marketing certainly didn’t help. The powers that be were counting on the names attached to draw the audiences. In the end, The BFG grossed $178 million next to the $140 million it took to make, so while it was mostly received positively by critics, it was a bit of a disappointment at the box office. I suspect it will continue to have mixed reviews, but I think ultimately it will find its audience over the long term for the right reasons.
Let me tell you about some of the names involved. The original story for The BFG was written in 1982 by Roald Dahl, and Disney rolled this out in honor of his 100th birthday. 1982 has special significance in this case, as this film reunited three of the magic-making names of that year: director Steven Spielberg, writer Melissa Mathison, and composer John Williams. In 1982, this trio powered a little movie with a lot of heart. You may have heard of it: E. T. The Extra Terrestrial. This film, The BFG, marks their debuts for Disney, and it’s a tale that’s practically tailor-made for such a collaboration. It also marks the 27th collaboration between Spielberg and Williams. Think about that for a moment and really make the attempt to wrap your head around the idea. It boggles the mind, doesn’t it? That bit by itself was all I needed to want to see this film. Anything else is just a bonus. When you consider it’s Disney, that makes it an even bigger bonus.
The BFG tells the story of Sophie, a 10-year-old girl who lives in an orphanage, and suffering from long nights of insomnia, she tends to read. A lot. That she’s reading Dickens isn’t lost on me. That means she’s aware of her situation, and she’s better read than many adults you can name. During one such night, she’s snatched from her bed because she made the cardinal sin of ignoring the basic rules, such as “don’t ever leave your bed” and “don’t ever look behind the curtain.” Of course there’s a child-snatching monster behind the curtain. Of course.
It turns out, the child-snatching monster is, in fact, a giant, and he only snatched her because he was afraid she’d tell the world about him. Despite her protests that nobody ever takes her seriously anyway, the giant tells her that she’ll be spending the rest of her life in the land of the giants. As she gets to know the giant, or BFG (Big Friendly Giant), she quickly learns that he’s gentle, he’s a vegetarian, he sleeps across the deck of a pirate ship, and he’s the smallest giant in the land. The other giants are brutish, twice his size or larger, and they eat children. They ate the last such “human bean” that BFG smuggled in. She also learns that BFG’s work entails catching dreams in the wild, growing dreams on his Dream Tree, harvesting them, and making custom dreams for people. As Sophie grows attached to BFG, she hatches a plan that will, if successful, free them both of the torment of the other giants… a plan that involves Queen Elizabeth II. Because, why not?
The film lingered in development hell for years. Producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy began working on it for Paramount back in 1991. By 1998, a screenplay was delivered with consideration of Robin Williams in the role of the BFG. Odd as this sounds, it turned out to be a train wreck of a collaboration. The giant’s mode of speaking made it somewhat awkward for even an ad-libber the caliber of Robin Williams to pull off. After further attempts by Terry Jones and Ed Solomon at a screenplay, the project lost its rights, and Kennedy and Marshall were all set to produce again in 2011 for Dreamworks. Before long, it was a collaboration between Dreamworks, Amblin Entertainment, and Walt Disney Productions.
The film is a technical marvel. Mark Rylance’s performance as BFG was motion captured for Disney by an animator at WETA. These motion captures were then seamlessly melded with Disney’s computer animation and live action performances. For the role of Sophie, an intensive six month search ended with the discovery of Ruby Barnhill. Spielberg has stated that the character of Sophie is one of the strongest characters he’s ever put into a film, and he wanted to ensure that this strength could come across. To say that Barnhill delivered is understatement. She needs very little effort to push her personality through all of the animation and wonder.
As a story, the film isn’t free of problems. The first half is magical and whimsical, just as it should be, but it feels a bit like it’s being pushed along or even dragged at times. It turns out, the giants are more than a little creepy in the wrong kind of way, and the movie does give way to a new level of fart jokes. Also… what is seen cannot be unseen.
A funny thing happens in the midst of this. If you allow yourself to be captured by the visuals and not too distracted by the possible presidential influence of BFG, then as the second half opens and Sophie hatches her plan, the movie becomes one of those little “feelgood epics that could,” much as E. T. was back in the day, gas attacks notwithstanding. I would like to say I was enthralled at the outset, but I wasn’t. Upon reflection, I find I have a soft spot for this film, warts and all. As a sleeper, it works in an old school kind of way. Had this movie been released in 1982, I have no doubts it would have done far better. It’s designed, perhaps, for a different generation’s audience. At the same time, though, that does put it in the storytelling realm of “classic” Disney features. Maybe it won’t compete with the likes of The Little Mermaid or Frozen, but it’s not merchandising or showstopping Broadway tunes that’ll give this movie staying power. It’s heart.
Not all of the heart of this film is provided by what you see. Much of it is in what you hear. Maestro John Williams has created a subversive score that sneaks under the radar as much as the film itself does and carries with it all of the wonder and magic that’s just outside of the normal human experience, across the horizon into giant land. When one considers the Williams catalog of greats, The BFG isn’t going to number among the most memorable of his soundtracks. And it doesn’t have to. This one is going to sit with the hidden gems, the ones that audiophiles and Williams enthusiasts are going to discover and rediscover as the years go by. It’s disappointing that the film and especially its score aren’t getting more attention, but in the final consideration, it’s not exactly a blockbuster either. It’s a good little movie with honest intentions, and as I say, a lot of heart.
3 stars, with aspirations of more at intervals.