- Composed by John Williams
- Walt Disney Records / 2016 / 64m
I loved Roald Dahl’s books when I was a young lad and The BFG, published when I was four, was probably my favourite. There was an animated tv movie in 1989 but I was always a bit surprised that it didn’t have a successful big-screen adaptation (especially given Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has had two, and Matilda, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox have all had high-profile ones). It still doesn’t look like it will have had a successful big-screen adaptation because – despite being directed by Steven Spielberg and receiving an enthusiastic response from the critics – this one, with Mark Rylance in the title role, looks set to be something of a box office bomb.
After last year’s surprise of Thomas Newman scoring Bridge of Spies, normal musical service resumes for Spielberg in the shape of his legendary collaborator John Williams, now in his 85th year, with this being the pair’s 27th movie together. The film gives Williams the opportunity to write something lighter for Spielberg for the first time since 2011’s Tintin; his exceptional score for The Force Awakens coupled with the precious rarity of any new music raised expectation levels to extremely high levels.
Perhaps they were unfairly high (speaking for myself) but I have to say I can’t help but be a little bit disappointed by the result. Let’s be clear – if a lesser composer wrote precisely this music for this film then I’d probably be extremely enthusiastic about it, but this is John Williams and he is no ordinary film composer. There’s no doubting the technical mastery – the writing for woodwind in particular is absolutely outstanding, the frequent flute solos and duets a real highlight of the score – and there are certainly plenty of wonderful moments, but they don’t always build up to the magical places I hope they will.
Inevitably, there are comparisons to be made with previous Williams scores – the occasional similarities to Harry Potter aren’t surprising (the main theme has a passing resemblance to The Chamber of Secrets, some of the more lighthearted action music could be from The Prisoner of Azkaban); nor indeed the maniacal energy of the odd macabre passages which recall The Witches of Eastwick; and just once there’s the sense of wonder of ET (a film to which a couple of reviews have bravely compared this one), in the outstanding “Dream Country”, which also features some of that tremendous flute material. Some of the other memories are more surprising – the appearance of the theme from The Fury (quite subtly) in “The Witching Hour” is unexpected, probably unintentional, but really raises a smile. One of the score’s themes does have a great similarity to Lincoln, which is more distracting given its more prominent use and that score’s relative recentness.
The main theme is absolutely lovely, with an English pastoral feeling to it not unlike War Horse (I promise – that will be the last comparison I make) – it receives so many variations through the score but never wears out its welcome, which to be harsh might be because it never quite makes it into the form of a classic Williams melody, surprisingly floating out of the mind once it’s over. My favourite performance is the deftly sweet but not saccharine piano version in “Building Trust”. Perhaps more memorable is the main “nightmare” theme, which has a darkly comic , mischievous tone and is quite delightful. Its standout performance comes in “Sophie’s Nightmare”. There’s a nice, appropriately regal sound to a couple of cues late in the score which reflect the appearance of the Queen – these are fleeting but wonderful.
On the other hand, some of the more comic moments aren’t really to my taste – just a bit too happy and frolicy. The tuba theme for the villainous giants is quite amusing for a bit but far from giving them any sense of menace actually does quite the opposite (it sounds like a theme for a loveable grandpa). All of the score’s main ideas are neatly summarised in the eight-minute conclusion “Sophie and the BFG” which will be going straight onto a lot of people’s Williams playlists.
There’s no doubt whatsoever as to just how luxurious this music is – sheer class simply oozes from every pore, as ever with John Williams. I like most of it and love some of it – but much though I really, really want to love all of it, I can’t say I do. It just doesn’t push my buttons the way Williams’s music usually does, and it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. I can’t say the theme isn’t memorable because that isn’t something I can define, but I can say that it isn’t particularly memorable to me, which is very rare from a Williams main theme, especially from a film like this. To be particularly harsh, even when at its finest moments it is easy to reel off a list of scores in which the composer has done similar things better in the past. Having said that – John Williams is John Williams. Listening to an hour of new John Williams music in 2016 is a great thing to be able to do, something to be treasured, and even if it’s not an outstanding work by his standards, it’s still something to which the majority of his colleagues could only aspire to. The negative sentiment which runs through some of my words above comes as a result of comparing the score with my sky-high expectations for it; by mere mortals’ standards, it’s impossible to deny its quality and the enjoyment inherent in hearing its unrelenting pleasantness.