The film features the last script written by Melissa Mathison (in her second and final collaboration with Spielberg, the first being E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) before her death in late 2015. The film had been in development by producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall since 1991 with Paramount Pictures, until DreamWorks acquired the rights to the production in 2011. Spielberg eventually signed on as director, with Walt Disney Studios, Amblin Entertainment, and Walden Media following suit. Many fans of Spielberg's previous films expected him to tackle the darker elements of Dahl's book with proficiency, likening the project as a spiritual successor for Spielberg to E.T. However, when The BFG was premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, critical reaction was mixed with praise going towards Rylance and Barnhill's performances along with the visual effects. Reviews after the film's worldwide were generally the same - somewhat positive - but the film ended up severely underperforming at the box office within its first weekend, with many analysts rushing to call it the largest flop in Steven Spielberg's entire career.
The BFG also marks a welcome return to a collaboration which hasn't been seen since 2012. Fresh off the massive success of a certain seventh sequel to a certain popular science-fiction franchise, John Williams returns for his 28th collaboration with Spielberg after having been forced to drop out of scoring duties for Bridge of Spies due to a minor health issue. The composer has certainly been active in the last few years and shows no signs of stopping, age seeming to not be a factor for turning out high-quality music. But the question does therefore remain: what's the end result?
Williams's traits - they're all here. Musical motives, development, genius orchestration, and his usual palette of colors at his arsenal depending on the genre and feeling of the film he is working on. In this case, it's a return to the whimsical fantasies of childhood adventure films. However, much like the final product of The BFG itself, Williams's music plays it safe and subdued, yet intimate and heartfelt. It makes no alarming attempts to grasp the truly darker elements of Dahl's book in the veins of E.T. Don't expect to hear any truly frightening, dissonant stingers or massive, epic symphonic gestures.
As is the case with your typical Williams score, a number of thematic identities and motives are abundant. Unlike The Force Awakens, where a mixture of new and old themes were used yet only few could be truly developed, The BFG has more ample opportunities to develop its singular thematic identities. Sophie's theme is the heart of the film, as this is her journey and her story. Its introduction in "Overture" is well-executed, with the horn signifying the bravery and courage she will gain. "Building Trust" (0:34) suitably develops the theme, and "Sophie's Future" develops it further poignantly and nobly. The latter cue at 2:05 brings out one of the stronger moments in the score, if only for a fleeting moment, as the music swells in typical Williams fashion. "Finale" brings out the piano solo version of Sophie's theme that Williams has done for many of his recent themes. Sophie's theme, innocent and yearning, is certainly not the strongest theme ever produced by the composer, but its endearing and youthful nature is expressed in ways that are masterfully crafted and shaped by Williams throughout the film. The best representation of Sophie's theme can be heard in "Sophie and the BFG," the end credits suite for the film.
The motive for the will-o'-the-wisp dreams is much more enchanting as they bounce and fly across the screen in colorful fashion. Williams's usual treatment of magical ideas - in this case, for the dreams - returns to his best friends for this film: the piano, flute, and harp. The harp and flute duet from the outset of "Overture" and "Sophie and the BFG" brings out the fairytale nature of the story. "Dream Country" (2:10) creates a shimmering juxtaposition of these magical elements in the atmosphere, with Sophie's theme at the forefront, harking back to the wondrous nature of Hook, E.T., and Harry Potter. "Dream Jars" starts out as a pointillistic duet between harp and flute, but unexpectedly turns into a contrapuntal flute trio (later joined by clarinet and strings) that surprisingly recalls Williams's concert work for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, "Soundings." Throughout the score, flute trills and flutters bring out the mystical nature of the dreams.
Of all the solos featured, it's the flute which stands out the most once more (Williams had previously done this for his work on Spielberg's War Horse). Special mention should be awarded to the brilliant flute soloist Heather Clark for an extraordinary performance and capturing the magical qualities imbued in the album. But, I digress.
The nightmares also have their own motive, spearheaded by very nice uses of muted trumpet. "Sophie's Nightmare" and "The Queen's Dream" are tense and full of rhythmic vitality (both at 0:47). "Dream Country" foreshadows this motive, with muted brass generally at the forefront of the action, and "Sophie and the BFG" recalls it fully at 4:52.
A motive exists for the big bad giant of The BFG, the Fleshlumpeater, which may remind listeners of the pompous nature of Jabba's theme from Return of the Jedi or Captain Haddock's theme from The Adventures of Tintin. "Fleshlumpeater" features the tuba prominently in this vein, and "Giants Netted" (0:57) does so as well for a brief snippet. Williams's usual treatment of low woodwinds for villains is back, this time for the other man-eating giants of the film. The beginning of "Frolic," as well as in "Giants Netted" (1:22), contains low bassoons for these characters. "Giants Netted" in particular includes cartoon-like interactions with these villainous identities and the nightmare motive.
The BFG is represented musically with two motives - his journey to and from Giant Country (A), and a more pastoral theme for the life that he leads (B). "To Giant Country" (Theme A) offers an appropriately grotesque waltz as the BFG brings Sophie to a place she doesn't know, and "Snorting and Sniffing" (possibly the most humorously named track on the album) offers a suitable reprise of that idea. "There Was a Boy" juxtaposes Sophie's Theme (2:43) with the A theme (5:54) in a more distressed tone as the BFG seemingly abandons Sophie in fear for her life.
"Sophie's Future" includes the B theme organically within the track, nostalgic but looking towards the future. Similar versions can be heard in "Meeting the Queen" (1:15), "Finale" (1:03), and "Sophie and the BFG" (4:20). The most heroic version of this theme occurs within "The Boy's Drawings" (1:32) as the BFG returns to Sophie in a statement of the friendship growing between them.
Apart from this mixture of themes and motives, the score is well-balanced with its atmospheric nature. This, however, ultimately makes the score incohesive, but it does recall many moments of past Williams scores independently. "The Witching Hour" is not altogether grim, but it is tense and mysterious (look for a surprising, perhaps unintentional use of his main theme from Brian DePalma's The Fury at 0:55). "Frolic" at 0:52 to the end is comically fun and reminiscent of both the Tchaikovsky-style manic frenzy of "Holiday Flight" from Home Alone and "The Flight to Bagghar" from The Adventures of Tintin. The Queen of England (portrayed by Downton Abbey and Doctor Who star Penelope Wilton), is given the regal treatment of Elgarian brass and militaristic drums in "The Queen's Dream" (1:10) and "Meeting the Queen" (0:43), harking back to the rudimentary style of Williams's main theme for JFK. "Meeting the Queen" also features a nice conversation with the BFG's B theme as they rally together to stop the man-eating giants.
As is also typical with Williams scores, the album presentation is not strictly adhered to what is presented in the film. In the past, this has caused a number of major criticisms from score collectors since anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours of music could be unreleased. Revenge of the Sith remains a prime example of falling into this trap (with roughly 71 minutes of music released and over 90 minutes remain officially unreleased). The BFG, however, is not so much affected by this as there are few unreleased cues present in the film, many of which are just reprisals of motives and themes already heard exactly in context within the album. A number of classical pieces by the French composer Jean Bapiste-Lully are included only in the film during the scenes in Buckingham Palace, possibly by Williams's selection, along with renditions of "Rule Britannia" and "Scotland the Brave," the latter performed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (during one of the most bizarre scenes in the movie). Interestingly, two selections from the Stanley Kubrick film "Barry Lyndon" are also used in the film (most likely an homage by Spielberg, a close friend of Kubrick's before his untimely death).
Overall, the score is a mixed bag of treasures, but considering The BFG has been released in the same year as the music for Batman v Superman and Independence Day: Resurgence, it's a welcome relief to hear something refreshing and remarkably inventive, even if much of the material is a retread of past Williams scores and not entirely original. While not his strongest score, and certainly not Spielberg's strongest film, it is much more nostalgic and heartfelt in nature rather than cohesive and memorable. "Sophie and the BFG" alone is a great summary of the score that one wouldn't need to listen to the entire album to know its primary identities, but that doesn't necessarily mean the album isn't worth a listen from front to back. The audio mixing on the album is not as pristine as was the case with the commercial album for The Force Awakens, but it still clearly articulates every solo instrument and the reverb is quite good. It's a subdued score by the maestro that plays it safe as the movie does, but it still remains as a wonderful treat and another score by John Williams for one's collection.
The BFG film © 2016 Disney, Amblin Entertainment, Dreamworks SKG, Reliance Entertainment, Walden Media, The Kennedy/Marshall Company.
The BFG Soundtrack and Album Cover - © 2016 Walt Disney Records, Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC
The BFG - © 1982-2016 Roald Dahl Literary Estate LLP
Song Credits courtesy of Soundtrack.net