It felt like a match made in heaven when it was announced that Steven Spielberg would be adapting Roald Dahl’s The BFG for Disney. Having this trifecta of renowned storytelling “giants” coming together for its first live-action feature film seemed almost too generous. Like as if the Movie Gods were shining down on us – so do take a moment to thank them in your own time.
Of course, there was a cartoon TV musical back in 1989 that managed to strike a chord with audiences. But beyond the realms of animation, it’s understandable why it’s taken so long for arguably one of Roald Dahl’s most beloved books to make it to the Silver screen.
The story presents itself with some gargantuan cinematic challenges. For one, its titular character BFG (an acronym for Big Friendly Giant) is a 24-foot Giant who spends most of his time paired with a young girl named Sophie. This presents the technological task of framing a movie with such a varied size ratio, as well as undertaking the responsibility of making a BFG through motion-captured technology and making it all look plausible.
But when you have the man who brought dinosaurs back to life 23-years-ago in Jurassic Park (which still hold up to today’s CGI standards) and the incredible nuanced performance from Mark Rylance, you get something that feels authentically believable and human.
Spielberg himself stated that, “The BFG has enchanted families and their children for more than 3 decades.” But it’s not hard to decipher which elements of the book attracted the director to the project. It’s a story about a young orphaned girl who is plucked from her bed by a larger-than-life creature with humongous ears, where she’s whisked off to a fantastical land where dreams are literally made. The parallels to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are very clear here.
The reason for what must be the most justified kidnapping in cinematic history is because the insomnia-inflicted Sophie (played with gusto by newcomer Ruby Barnhill) spots the BFG sneaking around the bedroom windows of her local London neighbors. The BFG explains to her that if she were to start blabbing about the existence of Giants, then the armies would come and take him away.
Sadly for Sophie, she is now living in Giant Country which is populated with 9 other people-chomping, Giants with core-chilling names such as Bloodbottler, Meatdripper and their leader, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement). But thankfully, the BFG is (by nature) a kind and gentle spirit who also happens to be vegetarian who only consumes foul-tasting Snozzcumbers. Plus, he provides a service to humanity by blowing dreams into our heads as we sleep at night.
Understandably the bossy Sophie has some friction initially with him for abducting her but after ten minutes together, the two form an unlikely yet endearing friendship which resonates a similar pathos to that of Elliot and E.T. – they may not fully understand each other but they are both alone in their worlds and merely long for companionship.
Rylance won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor earlier this year for his previous partnership with Spielberg in Bridge of Spies, and their sophomore project evolves beyond their last feature to something that will no doubt capture the hearts of children everywhere.
Rylance is a distinguished stage-actor yet his motion-captured facial expressions and mannerisms are never lost in translation. In terms of putting his own spin on the grammatically-challenged Giant, Rylance adopts an almost-West Country accent and takes his time in delivering some of the signature mispronunciations of the character like “Cattepiddlers and whoopsy-splunkers.” His sweet disposition and his natural warmth make for a seriously lovable leading man.
Whilst Barnhill plays Sophie with all the aplomb and stubbornness of a classic Dahl character, there are times where she doesn’t fully grasp the green-screen-acting and her intention doesn’t quite hit the mark. But at 11-years-old, Barnhill still has to be complemented for carrying such a heavy responsibility on her shoulders. For the 115 minutes of screen time, she is present for almost every single shot and as the film progresses, the emotional kinship between her and BFG only deepens.
The plot by Dahl has always been of a brisk and snappy nature, which works to Spielberg’s advantage. The on-point script written by the late Melissa Mathison grants Spielberg the flexibility to develop the Brobdingnagian world which he immerses us in. A particularly standout visual-accomplishment comes when the BFG takes Sophie to Dream Country to help him capture the ember-like dreams that whisk around under the reflection of stunning lake set atop a mountain.
It’s a whimsical poetic triumph that just gets everything perfect from the plinky-plunky John Williams score to the choice of lighting and the stunning visuals – it’s as if the director takes us through the looking-glass and we’re walking with him in tandem through the subconscious.
Another thing worth nothing is that Spielberg has now embraced the fart-joke gag. Some may find it vulgar, but the director is merely being faithful to the source material and what he pulls off may be the best use of flatulence that ever premiered at Cannes—there’s a sentence I will never get the pleasure of repeating again in my life.
In a scene which sees her Majesty dining with the BFG in Buckingham Palace, BFG whips out a decanter of his delicious Frobscottle (a carbonated-descending drink) as a welcome gift. The juxtaposition of the fancy establishment and having both her Highness and her Corgis become subjected to uncontrollable musical-gas is nothing short of comedic-brilliance.
The BFG addresses the importance of dreams and what use we have for them both personally and spiritually. And in typical Disney-fashion, the story really hammers home the dreams-do-come-true message. Sappy and sentimental? Absolutely, but it’s an ending befitting of many a Roald Dahl novel.
Whilst The BFG won't be regarded as Spielberg's greatest cinematic achievement, it's still a superbly brilliant adaptation of one of the greatest children's books of all-time. Visually, it's a gem, but it's the emotionality between the BFG and Sophie that make this a spectacular watch.