Imaginative BFG a Giant-Sized Adventure
In a dilapidated London orphanage, just after the witching hour, which comes not at midnight, but at 3:00a.m, young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) sees something amazing. A giant (Mark Rylance), a big, lumbering creature wandering through the city streets, using various methods of distraction in order not to be seen by any still awake during the dead of night. Thing is, he sees her, too, and thus, not wanting the little one to reveal his existence to anyone, whisks Sophie away to Giant Country, claiming he intends to keep her there for the remainder of the little girl’s life.
But the giant, dubbed “BFG” (that’s short for Big Friendly Giant, don’t you know) by his diminutive human houseguest, didn’t think things through as thoroughly as he maybe should have. Not only is Sophie smart, headstrong and indefatigably inquisitive, but she’s also intent on discovering as much about this newfound world as she can. Problem is, the remainder of the giants aren’t so friendly. They eat humans. Worse, children, especially those about Sophie’s age, are their favorite snack, and if the kid and her new pal, The BFG, aren’t careful their friendship could be over before it even has a chance to begin.
Based on the timeless classic by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, the new family-friendly fantasy The BFG reunites director Steven Spielberg and the dearly departed screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who tragically died of cancer in November last year) for the first time since 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. While not the instant masterpiece that marvel proved to be, this sweet, simple and absolutely lovely adaptation of the beloved book is nothing to scoff at, the level of wit, wisdom and charm on display throughout undeniable. The movie is a treasure trove of honest emotion and is filled with genuine insights, all of it still knowingly tinged with moments of dread and menace that, while still kid-friendly, fit Dahl’s literary aesthetic perfectly.
It’s easy to forget just how dark the author’s stories can get. Dahl respected children, understood that they could look at complex issues in ways adults so often don’t feel like they are prepared to. From James and the Giant Peach to The Witches, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator to Matilda, complex issues involving the loss of a parent, sickness and kids in mortal peril are par for the course. It can be pretty scary, but never overwhelmingly so, Dahl always able to find the inherent emotional truth driving forward; and as such readers big, small and in-between are able to see themselves in these various adventures no matter how extreme they might end up becoming.
In this case, all of the giants other than BFG do eat children. But while this is odious and terrible, as seen through Sophie’s eyes this is an obstacle a kid can, and should, overcome. Facing this sort of fear isn’t just a challenge, it is an essential part of growing up, the life lessons gleaned while doing so ones that will positively shape their respective lives going forward. Spielberg and Mathison never dwell on the gruesome, just on the distastefulness of it all, allowing Sophie’s fear to transform into heroic conviction as she convinces BFG to aid her in making sure the other giants can’t continue their nightly jaunt into the countryside in order to find new pint-sized delicacies to munch on.
It’s all pretty splendid, and if not quite up to the high standard of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or 1990’s The Witches, Spielberg and Mathison’s jaunt into Dahl’s playground is still something rather special. A melodious lark of ingenuity and whimsy, the heart beating at the center of the film is strong, and as such the tenderness and care shown to, not just the characters, but the viewers themselves is continually immense. Even when the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) gets in on the action the results still manage to feel authentic, her involvement an organic part of the tale that’s as delightful as it is essential.
Fresh off his Oscar win for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Rylance is just as superb as the titular giant. His turn as the BFG is a subtle bit of showmanship filled with emotional nuance. His blossoming friendship with Sophie is born out of fear only to build to a familial connection that’s as heartfelt as it is necessary. There is an inherent timidity to BFG that is slowly and surely deconstructed and dismantled by the little girl’s selfless tenacity. Rylance showcases this transformation with dignity and poise, ultimately making him a quiet hero whose actions speak louder than any of the words that so often stumble and bumble their way out of his mouth.
Spielberg can’t help himself from giving into some of his more frenzied directorial tendencies every now and then, and as terrific as Jemaine Clement might be as the chief antagonist confronting BFG and Sophie, his character given the disgustingly appropriate moniker of Fleshlumpeater, he and his fellow giant brethren are still cartoonish oafs that are too silly to ever truly scare. Also, while the filmmaker’s use of 3-D as an immersive tool is on par with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo or Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, his utilization of motion capture technology isn’t as consistently sensational, some moments BFG and his brothers looking almost photorealistic, while others have them showcasing the textures and the jerky movements of video game characters circa 1994.
But the core of the tale always remains strong, Mathison’s take on Dahl’s source material a wondrous bit of adaptation that makes the material feel current while at the same time remaining true to every facet of the author’s intentions. Whether one is a fan of the book or has never read the darn thing, The BFG is a delightful fantasy, one all associated with the film should be proud of, the end result an enchanting journey of resilience and imagination the likes of which dreams are born from.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)