When I say that The BFG looks glossy, I’m referring to both the film and the character. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story about a big friendly giant has yet another author in Weta Digital, the storied visual effects production house that helped to create Peter Jackson’s Hobbit cycle. Filming on sets filled with screens of blue and green, Spielberg and Weta have imagined London as a soundstage that’s been filtered through a laptop. They’ve made Dahl’s imagined places—Giant Country and Dream Country—look like they were created in the laptop itself. And they’ve used motion capture technology to map the face of actor Mark Rylance onto the eponymous giant, rendering him as an unusually expressive digital artifact. It’s reminiscent of the seminal work that Weta did with Andy Serkis on characters like Gollum, which led to the mo-cap-heavy movie scene we live with today. But when you place digitized characters in a physical location, they’re always going to be lacking in the tactility department. They look like what they are: digital designs that have been painted over real environments. When it comes to looking real, even the best computer-generated imagery can’t match a puppet. Where E.T. had rough imperfections and visible contours, BFG has perfect angles and digital softness. He looks glossy—he looks programmed—he looks unreal. He doesn’t fit into our world. But he’s right at home in our multiplexes.
He’s also wide-eyed and wondrous enough to qualify as Spielbergian. The screenwriter of The BFG is the late Melissa Matheson (E.T.), the cinematographer is Janusz Kaminski (most Spielberg movies), and the composer is John Williams (most Spielberg movies.) Their film doesn’t depart from Dahl’s text often, but when it makes changes, it does so by adding Spielberg-brand sweetener. They do keep the author’s treasured malapropisms, lingual flourishes, and threadbare “plot.” A young orphaned girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, appropriately precocious) is snatched up and whisked away by a 24-foot-tall softie; she witnesses him being bullied by his human-eating giant peers; eventually Sophie directs BFG toward the Queen of England and a military partnership that will help to rid Giant Country of its rougher elements once and for all. So we start in London. But in The BFG, London looks less like a city and more like a purgatory stationed between the real world and the digital one. Spielberg and Kaminski are doing their trademark heavenly-light thing—we don’t see past the single dreamy avenue we’re stationed on, because the streetlights are bright enough to blot out everything else. One thing we do see is the BFG doing a comic-book-style stealth run through the neighborhood, ducking behind trees and contorting himself into disguises. The last time Weta teamed with Spielberg, it was to adapt The Adventures of Tintin, and when you’re watching this chase-heavy adaptation, you’re conscious of that. When the BFG is sneaking, he leaves us with nothing but an oversized shadow to see. That silhouette might as well be a mission statement. Like Jurassic Park before it, this is a Spielberg movie on the subject of scale. We don’t spend much time in Sophie’s orphanage, but there’s a few pleasurably extraneous details that Spielberg makes a point to document while we’re there. One of them is her dollhouse.
Three different excursions make up the rest of the movie, all to realities warped by different shapes and sizes. We’re touring the dollhouses. The first one is in Giant Country, where size-conscious visual gags run amok courtesy the makeshift decor of the BFG’s humble home. (He stores his coffee beans in a phone booth, his rocking chair seems to be constructed out of tree trunks, and he sets Sophie to sleep in the lookout perch of a pirate ship.) After that, we go onward to Dream Country, where rivers run upside down, and everything else follows suit. Lastly we return to normal-size reality, in the form of Buckingham Palace—and at this point the movie shifts to a palette that’s bright and sharp, like the “live-action cinema” we’re used to—where oversized household items are used to serve Rylance’s giant a meal (they pour his coffee out of gardening tools.) Reports have it that Spielberg shot many sequences using three identical sets built at varying scales. It’s the most integral “effect” in the movie, alongside the exchanges between real people and digital ones. Every single moment of The BFG is characterized by contrasts of scale (like a giant wearing a circus tent as a shirt) and contrasts of appearance (like a digital monster trading fart jokes over tea with a flesh-and-blood Queen.) If computer-generated images and live-action ones have become different sides of the same coin, then The BFG flips it so fast that you can see them overlapping.
Spielberg has always been a film-obsessed filmmaker, and he’s commenting on the form throughout this whole movie. The BFG projects the dreams he catches onto a wall for Sophie to see, connecting the movie screen to the unconscious. (We also see BFG storing the manifested dreams in specialized containers—they look like film canisters.) And when Sophie is helping BFG to concoct a dream that will inspire shock and awe, she instructs him to “put some army in it,” which is probably a dig at some producer on an Indiana Jones sequel who dared to say the same. But the commentary that emerges from BFG most clearly—the one that defines the experience of watching it—is the one that’s wrought by those aesthetic contrasts. Spielberg’s orchestrated an exchange of dialogue between live-action movies and digitally-animated ones. He’s called them both to the dining room and asked for a truce. And it’s much needed—the commercial cinema of 2016 is one where human-sized people can barely find room in the frame. Instead we’re inundated with talking animals, ninja turtles, warcraft players, superheroes and supervillains, most of them born from the same motion-capture machine as the BFG. It’s not even extraordinary anymore. It’s just normal. We’ve been whisked away, as surely as Sophie was, to a community filled with giants. We call them the American cinema. And when they fart at our dinner table, we’re just going to have to smile and accept it, because there’s probably no going back.
THE BFG. RATED PG. PLAYING IN BOTH 3D AND 2D. OPENS EVERYWHERE ON 7.1.