THE BFG – John Williams
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Roald Dahl’s The BFG has been one of the most beloved stories of British children’s literature since it was first published in 1982. It tells the story of a young girl named Sophie, who lives in an orphanage in London, and who one night sees a giant blowing something via a trumpet-like object into a bedroom window down the street from where she lives. Fearing that his existence will be revealed, the giant kidnaps Sophie and takes her far away to his home in Giant Country. However, rather than being a fearsome monster, the giant turns out to be a Big Friendly Giant – a “BFG” – and the two quickly become friends. Unfortunately, a dozen or so other giants also live in Giant Country, and these giants are fearsome cannibals who eat children and bully the BFG, who is the smallest of their kind. Having witnessed the cruelty of the giants first hand, Sophie convinces the BFG to help her hatch a plan to stop them and their child-chomping ways once and for all. The story was originally made into a much-loved animated film in 1989 featuring the voice of the great David Jason, and has now been given the Hollywood live-action treatment, with Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance in motion capture as the BFG, newcomer Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, and Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair.
Although Spielberg and his screenwriter, the late Melissa Mathison, have sanitized some of Dahl’s darker story elements in favor of a more kid-friendly film, it more than makes up for this with its timelessness, its visual beauty and sense of magic, its charming and whimsical humor, and the sincerity of the central friendship between the BFG and his pint-sized little companion. Contributing enormously to the film’s overall tone and feel is the score by John Williams; this is the 27th Spielberg-Williams collaboration since The Sugarland Express in 1974, and has thankfully re-kindled the relationship that was forced to take a brief hiatus last year when Thomas Newman came in to score Bridge of Spies when Williams couldn’t successfully juggle his schedule commitments on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Stylistically, The BFG sees John Williams at his most playful; there are musical hints and callbacks to many other scores, including The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Home Alone, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but this is not to say that the score is derivative. Instead, the score feels welcoming, intimate but not minimalistic, warm and appealing but not schmaltzy. The orchestration is light, generally playing at the higher end of the register, with special emphasis being placed on sweet strings and a vast array of flighty, effervescent woodwinds that cover the entire range of the section. Williams has always been an exceptional woodwind writer – the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back has a flute solo, for heaven’s sake! – but The BFG showcases them to their fullest potential.
The centerpiece of the score is Sophie’s Theme, a six note ascending melody full of child-like wonder and inquisitiveness, but dashed with a touch of melancholy. It reminds me a little of the softer, more poignant theme from War Horse, albeit without the distinct pastoral feeling Williams imbued into that score. It receives a rich and memorable performance in the opening cue, “Overture,” and appears regularly thereafter, not only accompanying Sophie’s adventures among the giants, but also conveying her developing friendship with the BFG himself. Notable appearances include the beautiful piano version of the theme in “Building Trust,” gentle and tender like a lullaby; the wistful and thoughtful version in “Sophie’s Future,” which features some delicate interplay between flute and harp; and the emotional duo comprising “There Was a Boy” and “The Boy’s Drawings,” both of which rise to moments of revelatory catharsis.
A recurring idea in the film relates to dreams and nightmares. Part of the BFG’s job involves him heading to the top of an immense mountain – what he calls ‘Dream Country’ – where both dreams and nightmares are born from the leaves of a magical tree; the BFG then catches the dreams, and takes them back to his workshop, where he mixes them and places them into jars, ready to be delivered to the children of the world while they sleep. This concept is captured musically through two recurring instrumental ideas. The ‘dreams’ are illustrated by the woodwinds, skittery, lithe, dexterous, and playfully mischievous. These woodwind textures showcase Williams’s astonishing skill as an orchestrator, darting from oboe to flute to piccolo and back again with astonishing speed and fluidity. These passages will remind listeners of the similar textures he employed in parts of Hook, The Adventures of Tintin, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Meanwhile, the nightmares have a darker, more threatening theme, with heavier brass textures, and a notably prominent parts for ragged, muted trombones.
These ideas are explored fully in the wondrous “Dream Country,” which is filled with a series of beautifully expressive, almost impressionistic textures that recall the effortless delicacy of E.T., specifically the scenes where Elliot is first getting to know his alien friend, which in some way mirrors the emerging friendship between Sophie and the BFG here. The glittering chimes, the shimmering harp glissandi, the woodwind and brass nightmare/dream ideas, and several performances of Sophie’s theme make this a 10-minute tour-de-force. Subsequent performances of the ‘dream motif’ in “Dream Jars” and “Blowing Dreams” root the idea deep within the core of the score, while further statements of the ‘nightmare motif’ in “Sophie’s Nightmare” and “The Queen’s Dream” give the score a chance to explore some quite vivid action material.
A couple of smaller themes flesh out the score’s dramatic palette. “The Witching Hour” has stylistic echoes of Williams’s English Gothic horror scores from the 1970s, notably Dracula and Jane Eyre, creating a sense of moody unease, and giving the long shadows and dark corners of Mrs. Clonkers’s orphanage a spooky atmosphere. This is followed by a Harry Potter-esque waltz in “To Giant Country,” which seems to act as a personal ‘travelling theme‘ for the BFG, with great elongated steps in the rhythmic core of the piece to match his immense stride, and a sense of elegance of movement that stands at odds to his size. Unfortunately, this theme isn’t explored much during the rest of the score, with just one further brief statement towards the end in “Giants Netted” – a missed opportunity.
The evil giants have their own theme, a blustery march for trombones, which is more comical than threatening, and which has echoes of Home Alone in the timing. It first appears in “Fleshlumpeater,” before emerging as the cornerstone of the lively action sequence “Frolic,” where it embraces a tone of almost circus-esque carnival writing, and accompanying their eventual banishment in “Giants Netted”. The theme for the evil giants might be the one misstep in Williams’s score, as it treats the giants as bumbling pratfall-prone comic relief rather than the genuinely scary threat they were in Dahl’s original book. Musically, there’s nothing to criticize, but his cartoonish depiction does render them less terrifying than they should be.
The British monarchy is depicted musically in both “The Queen’s Dream” and “Meeting the Queen” as a flourish of brass-led regal pomposity. Military snares herald the return of the resolutely English-sounding contrapuntal horn writing in the second cue, which comes across as a wonderful echo of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, a tune beloved by the Brits despite it being written by a Czech. Unfortunately, in the film itself, some of the moments involving Queen Elizabeth II seem to have been scored not with Williams’s theme but with a barely-disguised variation on the old clichéd chestnut ‘Rule Britannia’ that has been a lazy musical shorthand for the British monarchy in a million American films over the years; it’s a shame that Spielberg resorted to this, but thankfully it doesn’t appear on the soundtrack.
The “Finale” presents a wistful piano version of Sophie’s theme, prior to the conclusive “Sophie and the BFG,” an 8-minute exploration of all the score’s main thematic ideas, including several lushly orchestrated and extended performances of Sophie’s theme, the dream and nightmare motifs, and the BFG travelling waltz, among others, bringing the score to a satisfying close.
Following the release of this score there has been a lot of talk about how this is one of Williams’s ‘minor’ works, how the themes don’t stand out and are not memorable, and how the extended sequences of colorful woodwind writing are more like pieces of classical music than part of a film score. From my point of view, these people could not be more wrong. Of course, when you have a canon as strong as Williams does, any new non-franchise score is going to have trouble stacking up against the likes of Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, and all the rest – and, yes, it’s true that in the bigger scheme of things there are at least 40-50 scores I would rank higher than The BFG. But you have to look at these things in the right way, and manage expectations: the 53rd best John Williams score would rank in the top four or five of many other composers’ filmographies, and had any other composer written this exact same score people would be celebrating it from here to kingdom come. It seems to be that Williams is a victim of his own success, and that every new score he writes carries the weight of expectation that it will be a masterpiece. Not only is that ridiculously unrealistic, it’s also grossly unfair, considering that the man is 84 years old and continues to write music of such a high quality when compared to many of his much younger peers.
Personally, I found The BFG to be delightful from start to finish: it has a strong and memorable main theme, with a palpable and appropriate sense of magic and wonderment, and a warm and nostalgic glow of friendship and tenderness. Not only that, the entire score is a master class in writing for woodwinds, which in and of itself should be wholly celebrated, especially considering the state of mainstream Hollywood film music these days. I can only draw one conclusion about those who are criticizing the score: they must have been raised on a diet of nothing but snozzcumbers, and it’s addled their brains!
Buy the BFG soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Overture (1:18)
- The Witching Hour (4:40)
- To Giant Country (2:33)
- Dream Country (10:10)
- Sophie’s Nightmare (1:57)
- Building Trust (3:25)
- Fleshlumpeater (1:36)
- Dream Jars (3:30)
- Frolic (1:43)
- Blowing Dreams (3:46)
- Snorting and Sniffing (2:13)
- Sophie’s Future (2:30)
- There Was a Boy (3:29)
- The Queen’s Dream (3:08)
- The Boy’s Drawings (3:05)
- Meeting the Queen (3:00)
- Giants Netted (2:03)
- Finale (2:13)
- Sophie and the BFG (8:08)
Running Time: 64 minutes 37 seconds
Walt Disney Records (2016)
Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by John Williams. Featured musical soloist Heather Clark. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by John Williams.