Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” feels as if were made by machine — uniform, perfectly tooled, but lacking a distinctive touch. So, it’s strange that the film’s one true spark of humanity doesn’t stem from an actor’s on-screen performance, but from a technical representation of a character who isn’t even human.
Mark Rylance’s spry, sprightly performance as the Big Friendly Giant provides the film’s saving grace, despite the fact that he’s never physically present in it. Instead, via the magic of motion capture, Rylance’s frame is stretched to a spindly 24 feet high, the better to play a giant who nervously abducts a young girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), inadvertently rescuing her from a loveless orphanage.
It’s a delicate balancing act, for both Rylance and for the performance-capture team, because the character needs to be both terrifying and pitiable; a giant who is also the runt of the litter. He’s an outcast among outcasts, a freak among freaks, and Rylance doesn’t soften his strangeness. While Spielberg often tries to force the audience’s hand, here the decision to empathize is left up to us.
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Capturing “realness” — the gulf between technology-created characters that are realistic and ones that are truly relatable — has been the bugbear of performance capture. Known as the “uncanny valley,” it’s a danger zone. Too often, the digital final product comes soooo close to resembling reality — but it’s those last few inches that are the killer. Falling short inflates the failure to a magnitude, and the result can be films that leave the audience cold.
It’s easier when your movies don’t try to portray people. Most audiences haven’t studied apes closely enough to know if Caesar or Koba are true to life in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” The Na’vi are sui generis creations, as is Gollum. But when the process is applied to human characters, the results are often disastrous, and sometimes deeply unnerving. (See: Pretty much every movie Robert Zemeckis wasted a decade of his career making.) Human beings are the third rail of performance capture: You can get close, but don’t touch.
That’s what’s most interesting, and ultimately most important, about “The BFG.” It wastes no time hopping on that third rail. True, the BFG isn’t human, but he’s awfully close — much closer, in fact, than his fellow giants, who are rendered as hairy, slobbering grotesques. The animators have more or less maintained the shape of Rylance’s face as well as his expressions, although he has an impossibly pointy chin, to the extent that you can almost see the actor peering at you from behind the screen. He’s arguably more recognizably human here than he was playing that twinkly elf of a Soviet secret agent in “Bridge of Spies.”
The fact that the BFG doesn’t move precisely right, that his limbs jut out at all angles and his head tilts peculiarly, add to the character rather than distracting from it. He’s awkward and clumsy when he’s flustered, but flits weightlessly when he’s about his usual business, contorting himself into the silhouette of a tree or a lamppost to escape detection as he slips through the streets of London. He’s a cartoon when he needs to be, flesh-and-blood when he’s at rest.
As any parent who’s read Dahl aloud can testify, sometimes just getting your mouth around his invented words is a tricky task; infusing them with layers of meaning is trickier still. Rylance isn’t the first actor to assay the BFG on film, but he’s the first to get it right. In a 1989 animated version, the BFG’s voice is provided by David Jason. However, he only captures the giant’s whimsy, not his pathos.
Rylance introduces an undercurrent of hesitancy, as if he’s always thinking, “Did I say that right?” The BFG’s manner of speaking is a scrambled form of English that becomes a kind of music; perhaps no one but Lewis Carroll was as good at giving nonsense its own internal logic. It’s charming and imaginative, but it’s also sad, because it’s an outsider’s tongue, the version learned by someone who’s listened to humans talk for years but has never had anyone to talk to.
And for those who might argue for motion-capture performances being worthy, it’s this element that provides the technology’s saving grace. Yes, the tech keeps improving: Sensors get more sensitive, algorithms more sophisticated. But when you look at Andy Serkis’ Gollum or Zoe Saladana’s Neytiri, you don’t see the long-since-surpassed tech, but the performance underneath.
Put another way: While the orcs in “Warcraft” are far more supple and detailed than the N’avi of 2009, their digital artistry isn’t matched by the actors’. It doesn’t matter how many pores their skin has or how lifelike their hair when it’s stretched over a dead performance. (“The Jungle Book’s” Jon Favreau smartly bucked the prevailing trend and largely used animation for the major characters, so that his animals weren’t bound by human limitations.) While acting styles may change, that’s a matter of decades, not development cycles. The best motion-capture performances outlast the technology that helped create them.
Many of the best motion-capture performances involve characters who straddle the line between human and other: Gollum, a Hobbit deformed by the Ring; “Avatar’s” human-alien hybrids; “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'” intelligent simians. The technology has given life to slithering dragons and humanoid houses, but it produces its richest results when it’s standing right on the edge of the uncanny valley, calling us over to the other side. It’s as if we’re being led slowly down a path to setting aside our inherent understanding of what is or isn’t human, or at least what is or isn’t “like us.” Because if a machine can learn to simulate human life, maybe we can too.