Header image: Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance in The BFG (Walt Disney Pictures)
The BFG’s titular hero earns his living fishing colorful dreams out of an enchanted pool and bottling them in glass jars. He chooses his favorites and uses a trumpet-like instrument to cast these dreams out through bedroom windows into sleeping children’s heads. This occupation isn’t much different from Steven Spielberg’s. The director has long been the master of creating child-like wonder and magic in his films and entertaining generations of moviegoers with fantastical adventures. He’s achieved this by mastering technical innovation, staging memorable action set pieces and crafting intelligent, heartfelt stories. Spielberg’s new film follows this template, as he blends spectacular special effects with a family-friendly adventure story with admirable yet mixed results.
The BFG is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1982 classic children’s novel of the same name. Seeing how successful Dahl’s film adaptations have been, it makes sense that the world’s most commercially successful director would take on one of the author’s most popular works. The late Melissa Mathison, who also penned Spielberg’s E.T., scripted the adaptation. Spielberg has a history of utilizing the latest film technology and his work in The BFG is no different. The title character, a performance-capture creation played by an excellent Mark Rylance, comes to life in the director’s flawed, yet likeable holiday weekend release.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a brave, bespectacled ten-year-old girl who lives in a London orphanage. She stays awake at night, spending her time scolding drunks from her window and reading Dickens. Sophie’s heard tales of boogeymen abducting children in the night, but this does not deter her curiosity. Lo and behold, the tales are true, as one night a shrouded giant appears at her window, capturing and carrying her away. He avoids detection by blending into his surroundings, as he bounds through London’s streets journeying to a far-away land called Giant Country.
Upon arrival in Giant Country, Sophie believes she’ll soon become the giant’s supper. Her captor introduces himself as The Big Friendly Giant (Rylance) or BFG for short. Fortunately for Sophie, BFG is not a child-eating giant, but alternatively, he’s a kind and thoughtful vegetarian who dines primarily on a foul smelling vegetable called “snozzcumbers.” He’s 24 feet tall and possesses an elongated neck, wispy hair, and wizened features. But most importantly he has kind eyes, a gentle disposition, and a predilection for a wistful, mangled way of speaking he deems “squiggly.” He spouts malapropisms and mispronunciations like there’s no tomorrow. Television is a “telly telly bunkum box,” strawberries are “strawbuncles,” humble is “humbug.” BFG also introduces Sophie to “frobscottle,” a fizzy drink that causes a sensation of flatulence known as a “whizzpopper.”
BFG’s benevolence is unheard of in the barbaric community he calls home. Giant Country is populated with boorish, cannibalistic creatures that love the taste of “human beans, ” especially children. Dahl gives the villains fun names like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), and Childchewer. They mercilessly bully BFG and are suspicious that he’s hiding a delicious child. BFG is resigned to this callous treatment, but Sophie, ever the brazen optimist, believes he deserves better and she’ll do whatever it takes to help her new friend make it happen.
Like many of Spielberg’s previous films, the characters are deeply affected by loss. Sophie was orphaned at a young age and BFG grieves over the death of a beloved pal. The duo forges a friendship they’ve been seeking their entire lives. BFG decides to share his occupation with Sophie, and he takes her to Dream Country where he collects dreams that resemble colorful fireflies.
While the first hour includes touches of visual magic and witty dialogue, the story doesn’t really take flight until Sophie decides to solve BFG’s bullying problem by enlisting the help of the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton). Far and away, the film’s best scene is Sophie and BFG’s trip to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. Upon befriending the Queen and her loyal servants, Sophie and BFG are treated to a lavish breakfast and Spielberg hits the perfect comedic tone with clever sight gags sprinkled throughout. It’s comical to see the stunned staff become so accommodating to Sophie and her tall friend. The guests offer their hosts “frobscottle” to show their gratitude. I never thought I needed to see farting corgis at Buckingham Palace, but I was mistaken. The breakfast sequence is exuberantly funny.
The BFG owes much of its success to its star. Rylance’s performance is tremendous, as he adroitly balances his considerable comedic skill with profound poignancy. His endearing voice work is inspired throughout and his expressive face makes him feel more human than most past motion capture live-action hybrids.
The film is not without its share of problems. One of the strengths of Dahl’s novel is his warm, inviting prose, which cannot be recreated on screen. Additionally, the film’s first act is labored at times and sequences featuring the giants’ slapstick comedy are excessive. The story is also stretched fairly thin and is surprisingly devoid of thrills, as the giants never pose any real danger to Sophie and BFG. Much of the giants’ malevolence is lost in Mathison’s adaptation. The climax disappointingly plays it safe, failing to reach the electrifying heights of superior Spielberg blockbusters like Jurassic Park and E.T. The BFG’s measured pace and shortage of thrills results in a movie that’s often amusing and engaging, but rarely as magical and exhilarating as Spielberg’s finest work.
Despite The BFG’s imperfections, stellar performances, spectacular special effects, good-natured laughs, and a moving story make it worth seeing. I expected more excitement from a venerable and singular talent like Steven Spielberg, but this sincere effort is admirable.
Release Date: July 1, 2016
Score: **1/2 out of ****
Running Time: 115 minutes
Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader, Penelope Wilton, Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison, based on a book by Roald Dahl.