Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader.
Roald Dahl is an author who has an innate understanding of the inner mind of children and a great imagination that has shaped his popular children’s tales like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James And The Giant Peach, The Fantastic Mr Fox, etc. His stories have sold over 200 million copies, and many of them have been filmed. With an often mischievous sense of humour, his tales appeal to children, but they also have plenty to offer adult audiences as well.
Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic ET is a quintessential children’s film as it allowed audiences of all ages to escape into a superbly crafted fantasy. Dahl’s classic novel The BFG was also written in 1982 and has since become a favourite in the author’s canon. Dahl is well known for his fantasy stories that contain a wonderful mix of childlike innocence, anarchic humour and darkness and allow readers to escape into a fantasy world without rules and boundaries. It is these qualities that make Dahl’s BFG a perfect mix for Spielberg’s cinematic sensibilities.
The BFG centres around Sophie (played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill) a curious 10-year-old girl living in an orphanage. While all the other children are asleep, Sophie wanders around the orphanage, and even looks out her window at the city. One night she sees a strange figure in the darkness – it is a giant, who snatches her from her bedroom and takes her to his home in Giant Country.
The giant is tall and at first seems fearsome, but he is also kindhearted. Instead of being scared Sophie forms a bond with the giant (played by Mark Rylance through the use of motion capture technology) as they are both considered outsiders. The big friendly giant, as Sophie calls him, is actually the runt of the litter, and rather than eat on “human beans” like his fellow giants he is a vegetarian, and his favourite food is the snozzcumber. For this reason the giant is bullied by his fellow giants.
He has oversized ears, with which he hears “all the secret whisperings of the world.” He is a “dreamcatcher” – he plants specifically designed dreams in the heads of sleeping children. Sophie decides to help the giant overcome his problems with the other fearsome giants by enlisting the aid of none other than Queen Elizabeth (played here by a perfectly cast Penelope Wilton).
Spielberg has worked with his ET scriptwriter the late Melissa Mathison in adapting Dahl’s story for the screen, and the result is a heartwarming story of great appeal. And to their credit they have remained reasonably faithful to the source material and treat Dahl’s story with reverence. Much like Anthony Burgess created his own language for his novel A Clockwork Orange, so too did Dahl create his own wonderful lexicon for the giant, and Spielberg and Mathison have retained the unusual and colourful vocabulary.
Rylance is perfectly cast here as the BFG and he captures his eccentricities and peculiar unique language brilliantly. He also brings a sympathetic edge to the character and taps into the essential humanity and decency of the giant. This role is a bit of change of pace for Rylance who unexpectedly won an Oscar for his work in Spielberg’s Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies. For his part Rylance relishes the unique language and he delivers it wonderfully with his rich resonant voice.
Newcomer Barnhill is also excellent as the feisty and resourceful heroine of the tale, a strong character who is not intimidated by the giants. Bill Hader and Flight Of The Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement also play two of the giants, while Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall round out the cast.
There was an animated adaptation of Dahl’s story in 1989, but Spielberg uses the latest in CGI technology and motion capture techniques to bring Dahl’s vision to stunning life. The special effects here are stunning and they serve the story rather than overwhelm it. The CGI created giants are realistic and seamlessly integrated into the live action. The film looks good thanks to the beautiful cinematography of Spielberg’s regular collaborator the great Janusz Kaminski. And John Williams, who has scored all but a couple of Spielberg’s film, contributes a great score that is less bombastic than his work for some of the blockbusters he has worked on.
Spielberg often has a tendency to become overly sentimental, and there are a few times here when The BFG does become a little cloying. The middle section of the film, when the giant and Sophie venture into dream land to capture dreams, drags a little and there is a sense of some padding here that slows the film down. Spielberg could easily have cut some of this section. However the film comes alive again in the third act when Sophie and the giant visit Buckingham Palace to convince the Queen to solve the problem of the giants. Here Spielberg unleashes the best fart sequence committed to celluloid, eclipsing even that classic baked beans sequence in Mel Brook’s western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The BFG is Speilberg’s first collaboration with the Walt Disney Studios in his long filmmaking career, but thankfully the result is a real “whizzpopper”! Overall this is a fantastic piece of family entertainment and the pick of the films for the school holidays.