It turns out that the anything-goes murderfest The Purge: Election Year was not the grisliest bloodbath at the movies this past weekend. In accordance with the time-honored “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” principle, Steven Spielberg’s The BFG took a giant-sized dive at the box office over the holiday break. Despite working with a $140 million budget, the hopeful Disney blockbuster could only muster up a meager $22.2 million from domestic audiences, with an additional $3.9 million from overseas markets. For scale, consider that alarm klaxons started sounding when Alice Through the Looking Glass put up $33.5 million at the end of May.
Granted, this could turn out to be a slow-burner type of hit that builds up healthier grosses as it slowly gains traction, but for now, this marks the biggest flop for the usually-dependable director since his ill-fated war comedy 1941 way back in 1979. Disney must have felt like it had a slam dunk on deck by giving Spielberg the green light to adapt the beloved kids-lit author’s work; the filmmaker made a name for himself with fantastical tales glimpsed through the eyes of children. And hey, if they played their cards right, there might have even been a shower of Oscar gold in the film’s future. (It wasn’t too long ago that Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s foray into kids’ entertainment, earned 11 Academy Award nominations and clinched five.)
So what happened?
Emotion can be a tough sell
The main virtue of The BFG is its big friendly heart, apparent in the tender relationship between the Mark Rylance-voiced titan and the precocious-tot protagonist Sophie (Ruby Barnhill). But compared to the visual dynamism of a chomping shark, a flying saucer or a shriveled-up alien, the bond between a girl and her giant is not an easy thing to sell in a trailer. While that sentimental streak is a key part of Spielberg’s directorial style, it’s usually paired with something that can widen the eyes or drop the jaw on a first glance. There are awe-inspiring sequences in the film — notably a sequence in which the main pair journey to a gorgeous dreamscape filled with surreal forestry and reflective pools. But the closest that the commercials have come to an indelible image would probably be the film’s mammoth best friend sprinting through the countryside with trees blowing in his wake, or slicing the oozing, gross-out fruit he subsists on. Impressive animation or not, that wasn’t enough jaw-dropping wonder to sell the film to audiences, nor was it enough to communicate the emotional bond which was the film’s bread and butter.
The mixed reviews
Kids couldn’t give a damn about notices one way or the other, but the parents who ultimately buy the tickets may have been turned off by the film’s lukewarm reception. Though it currently enjoys a 71-percent approval rating on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, Rolling Stone‘s own Peter Travers offered numerous caveats in his review, notably that “things get ‘a bit grumbly’ — to borrow a BFG phrase — when the worlds of Spielberg and Dahl collide.” That comment reflected a solid faction of critics who felt that the fantasy couldn’t conjure the same magic as the filmmaker’s past triumphs. In a marketplace where an oddly-titled adaptation of a Dahl novel not featuring gigantic peaches or chocolate factories has to compete with Pixar’s latest, such faint praise (or in several cases, outright flagellations) could not have helped things.
No stars, no spectacles
Bridge of Spies benefited from slapping Tom Hanks’ beautiful, marketable mug onto its posters. Lincoln had the benefit of the world’s greatest living actor sinking his incisors into an already-iconic role. Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise — the A-list of Spielberg’s actors goes on. But not only does The BFG lack any immediately recognizable faces, there’s not even a flashy-looking monster to show off in the advertisements. All it had was an Oscar-winner better known for his stage work and a family of giants — who are, when you get down to it, a bunch of slightly-weird-looking old guys. (Even the poster for his 2011 adaptation of The War Horse offered a beautiful thoroughbred as audiencebait.) This earthy, lower-key take on the summer blockbuster was short on recognizable faces and the brand-name bombast in vogue right now — a lose-lose situation marketing-wise.
Holiday weekend hobbled box-office across the board
It’s not as if The BFG was edged out by a gigantic new release racking up accordingly huge grosses. This was a weak weekend for movies, period — enough that Finding Dory (in its third week of release) took the top spot once again with a robust $50 million take, leaving a considerable berth from the three new studio releases. With audiences taking trips or [gulp] spending quality time with their families, that left The Purge: Election Year with a $34.7 million gross and the steamy new Alexander Skarsgard/Margot Robbie Tarzan with $45.5 million, neither of which are anything to crow about. In what’s already been a dismal summer for nationwide cineplexes, the start of July was another little valley, and that certainly didn’t help boost The BFG‘s chances for finding an audience.
It’s a generational thing
Consider this: Roald Dahl’s book was published in 1982, meaning that many of the kids who grew up on it be slightly too young to have moviegoing-aged children of their own. Situated right where Gen X ends and the millennial territory begins, the novel’s core fanbase is currently in their mid-to-late-twenties and early thirties. If Disney was gunning for the nostalgia dollar with this adaptation of a kiddie cult classic, holding off for another eight to 10 years could have made a world of difference. As it was, the film may have fallen into the middle of a generation gap. There’s something cosmic about the way that this odd-bird film has met the same fate as its gawky, misfit hero — unappreciated for its odd charms, save for a select few.