8 out of 10
Mark Rylance as The BFG
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The BFG Review:
Whimsy is always difficult to pull off in a film. It’s a delicate balance – fall to one side, and the eccentricities of the piece come across as silly, fall to the other and they become hopelessly esoteric, and the movie risks losing the audience. Very few filmmakers can use it with real skill and grace. Of course, when we’re talking about Steven Spielberg, it’s just another tool at his disposal out of his rather large toolbox, and when you adapt Roald Dahl, who practically cornered the market on whimsy, the results are quite charming and wonderful. The BFG is unapologetically a children’s film, with children’s logic and a sense of captured dreams. For some, the unconventional nature of the story will be too much heavy lifting of disbelief, especially in the film’s second half.
Spielberg and the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison have streamlined the novel somewhat, but the core remains – little Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, who is adorable) lives in an orphanage in London, and during the night sees a mysterious creature she comes to call The Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance). The BFG takes Sophie to Giant Country, but there are other giants besides the BFG, giants like the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and the Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), who would like nothing more than to eat Sophie and other children – “beans” – to their heart’s content. The other giants call the BFG “runt” and make fun of his job, which is capturing dreams and sending them to the children of the world. While the BFG is kind and refuses to eat people, the other giants have no such restraint, and Sophie decides to enlist help in England to fight the nefarious Fleshlumpeater and his kin.
Spielberg and Mathison have collaborated before, and the result is one of the greatest films of all time – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. While The BFG never reaches those lofty heights, it has a unique character and spirit all its own. Roald Dahl has always been a master storyteller, teasing at darkness but enticing and sparking the imaginations of children of all ages. The spirit of his work endures here, and Spielberg and Mathison are careful not to overwhelm Dahl’s voice with their own.
Still, there are some pretty wonderful Spielbergian moments, and the BFG himself is a remarkable creation. Mark Rylance gives the BFG real life, and I loved hearing his voice work that dialogue, with talk of snozzcumbers and frobscuttle. There’s a cadence to Rylance’s performance that makes the odd turns of phrase remarkably easy to follow. Ruby Barnhill is also up to the challenge, giving a lovely, charming performance against The BFG’s many special effects. Jemaine Clement fills the Fleshlumpeater with ominous humor and while there is nothing in The BFG that would overly frighten children, there is just enough tension to keep things interesting.
Spielberg also gets to tell one of the most elaborate flatulence jokes since the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles, and it is admirable how much Spielberg embraces the silliness of the source material. Of course, the crudity of it all may turn off more sophisticated audiences, but frankly, this movie wasn’t made for them. It’s a children’s movie through and through, and the kids at my screening ate it all up – laughing uproariously at the humor, marveling at the wonder, and reveling in the imagination. Like many of Dahl’s other adapted films, The BFG gives a lot of room to play in the dreams of the mind.
It could be said, however, that Spielberg and Mathison are almost too loyal to the tone and the mood of Dahl’s work. Their voices are muted while Dahl’s remains strong – it’s no accident that the titles read Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Unlike their previous collaboration, which came from a very personal place in both Spielberg’s and Mathison’s lives, The BFG is almost clinical by comparison, at times making it difficult for the film to invite us in. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is an intimate film, rarely straying far from the house where it is set. The BFG is larger in scale, and thus the emotions are not as strong, but Spielberg has always been the master of playing with those emotions and giving us something that touches the inner child of all of us. He hasn’t lost that ability to take us to places of wonder. If The BFG doesn’t resonate as strongly as, say, E.T., that is largely due to the faithfulness of the film to the source material. But there are still moments that soar. John Williams’ score is more quirky than anthemic, but as always his work gives an emotional underpinning to the film that works splendidly.
Melissa Mathison was a terrific screenwriter, giving spirit and voice to many wonderful characters. Even the almost dialogue-free first half of The Black Stallion is rich with passion and feeling, and of course E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the very rare films that gets childhood (and growing up I the 1980s) so right. The BFG is no different, and I have the feeling that because I am an adult with the numbing distance of years, it isn’t possible for this film to register with me as it can with a younger audience. If my crowd at my screening was any indication, Mathison still has that ability to bring the magic of childhood into breathing cinematic reality. Her passing last year was a huge loss to cinema, and The BFG is a nice swan song to her talent. She will be greatly missed, and it feels like a privilege that Steven Spielberg gave us this gift of her last words. I’d be very curious indeed, over the coming years, to see how much of The BFG takes hold in young people’s hearts. If there are any reservations about seeing The BFG, take heart – this is a Steven Spielberg film, and if you love cinema, you simply do not miss a Steven Spielberg film. Just be prepared for the fart jokes.