Director: Steven Spielberg.
Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader.
THIS film is a reminder of many wonderful things.
It reminds us of how great it is when Steven Spielberg makes one of his all-too-infrequent family films, how clever the late Roald Dahl was with words, and how much fun it was to discover the works of both Spielberg and Dahl for the first time as a child.
All of those remembrances are mixed together to make something that is largely magical for two-thirds of its running time before reaching a sadly unsatisfying conclusion. Still, it’s those wondrous first sections that will resonate long after the disappointing final act has finished.
Newcomer Barnhill plays Sophie, an English orphan who is snatched from her bed one night by a mysterious giant (motion-captured Oscar-winner Rylance).
The giant – AKA Big Friendly Giant AKA The BFG – is actually not so big for a giant and in his homeland he is considered a runt by his enormous, colourfully named, human-eating brethren (led by a CGIed Clement and Hader).
The BFG doesn’t want Sophie to blab about his existence to the people back in England, but it’s a real risk keeping her in Giant Country when you’ve got the likes of Fleshlumpeater, The Butcher Boy, The Gizzardgulper, and The Meatdripper prowling around.
This Dahl adaptation is something of an amalgam of those three family favourites – it has a similar misfit friendship at its heart like E.T., there is some excellent production design and a childlike exuberance as in Hook, and the techno-wizardry of Tintin is front and centre again. All the while it captures the same sense of wonder of all three films.
For the first two-thirds, The BFG is beautiful and immersive. The titular character is another modern miracle of CGI combined with first-rate acting a la Andy Serkis’ Gollum and Caesar the Ape, which helps draw you in to the world of the giants but also the budding relationship between the plucky young orphan and the kindhearted colossus.
Here’s hoping Spielberg has found another muse to add to his collection in Rylance, who was an understated stand-out in Bridge Of Spies but is given free rein to be nothing short of wonderful as the bumble-mouthed BFG. Equally impressive is Barnhill, who gives a mannered but stirring performance as Sophie, matching precociousness with the right amount of childlike wonder.
Sadly, and it may seem odd to say this, but the blame for the less than impressive ending lies with the source material. Aside from adding a nice subplot relating to the lead giant’s lonely existence (which is a masterstroke), many will be happy to know the adaptation follows Dahl’s beloved book very closely.
Unfortunately this means (spoiler alert?) the ending remains in tact and the film has to do a weird tone jump in its latter stages to get to Dahl’s prescribed ending. After sustaining a wonderful whimsical level of magical realism that makes the most of Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s skills, the film suddenly flips into an absurdist childish fantasy that seems to have dropped in from another film. It’s an odd criticism to make, but the biggest flaw here may be that the film adheres too closely to Dahl’s words.
Another letdown is that the stakes don’t feel high enough. As Walt Disney realised, you needed the dark touches in a kids film to truly appreciate the good moments. Spielberg knows this too – E.T. has resonated for three decades because of the peril in the Extra-Terrestrial and Elliot’s plight, the strength of their friendship in the face of that peril, and the joy experienced from the pair making it out the other side.
The BFG, like E.T., is a sweet and gentle family film, but the requisite sense of danger is missing throughout, and particularly towards the end. The bigger, less friendly giants are supposedly stealing and eating children, and while we don’t necessarily want to see that in an all-ages adventure, it would have been nice to have a bit more jeopardy in Sophie’s situation.
Having said all that, there are some good laughs in the third act, and it’s hard to be too disappointed by a film that is so good for so much of its running time, and that has such a nice, well realised friendship at its centre.
If nothing else, Roald Dahl would probably have been very happy with how this turned out.