As a devout bibliophile for most of my life, it’s always been one of the blackest of marks against my credibility that I’ve yet to actually read any of Roald Dahl’s novels (Yes, none of them. Yes, you can crucify me later). Because of this, I’m not able to tell you whether or not acclaimed director Steven Spielberg’s The BFG is a faithful adaptation of Dahl’s classic children’s book of the same name. What I can say though is that it’s a scrumdiddlyumptious whizzpopper. For those of you who don’t speak BFG, that means “good”.
It has to be said though that despite how infectiously charming Spielberg’s first foray into the world of Disney movies is, this is not the type of movie that’s groundbreaking enough in its presentation to completely drop your jaw. But your face will more than likely end up in a different configuration though: Eyes sparkling in wonder, mouth stretched into a goofy grin.
And many of those grins will be sparked off by Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a remarkable orphan girl in England, who thanks to her insomnia witnesses something she shouldn’t have: A hooded 24-foot giant (Mark Rylance) skulking around the streets of London. Unfortunately – or fortunately, as it turns out – the giant also sees her, and in a bid to protect his secret, grabs her through her bedroom window and whisks her off to magical Giant Country. But what begins as a misguided “kidsnatching” turns into a steadfast friendship as Sophie learns more about this Big Friendly Giant, with his voluminous “extra-usual” ears and gobbledygook English, who spends his days catching dreams in Dream Country and blowing them into children’s bedrooms at night through his magical trumpet.
But it turns out that 24-foot is rather stunted in Giant Country, as the BFG is also considered the runt of the litter among his kin – nine barbaric behemoths with names like The Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement), the Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) and The Bonecruncher. And whereas the BFG survives by eating the horridly wormy and unctuous snozzcumber vegetables, the rest of the giants live up to their names, as their favourite food is “human beans”, usually procured through nightly raids to other countries (Never to Greece though, because “they is all tasting greasy”). But the clever and resourceful Sophie has a plan though to get the BFG the respect he deserves and stop the other giants from harming anybody else.
It’s a tale full of wonderment that digs into those parts of your brain reserved for wholly innocent childhood adventure. And bolstered by Dahl’s whimsical prose, it will genuinely let you feel young at heart again. It does drag its feet a bit in the beginning while simultaneously feeling overly rushed in its third act, and some of the gags may be too corny to appeal to anybody but the youngest members of its intended four-quadrant audience, but it’s hard to deny the charming wiles of its leads though.
The recent Oscar-winning Rylance – aided by some just plain miraculous computer generated wizardry courtesy of the artists at WETA Digital – turns in a magically expressive motion-captured performance that truly brings the BFG to life. He will have you laughing with just a waggle of his ears or a sheepish smile, while at the same time lending his performance an all-too realistic world-weariness. This is a character who claims to be as old as the Earth, and you can palpably feel those eons in every shuffling step, every sad crinkle of his eyes.
And although newcomer Barnhill doesn’t have any digital help or needs to carry the dramatic weight of this world on her shoulders, she’s no less captivating as the very likable Sophie. She does occasionally slip into fits of pantomime as she pushes the precocious cute girl angle a bit too hard, but these are luckily no more than fleeting moments. At least that’s how I felt, your mileage may vary.
The last time Spielberg played in such a colourful, family friendly world as this was 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, and that CG-animated adventure boasted several frenetic setpieces and an adrenalyzing pace. Don’t expect that here though. While The BFG certainly has its colourful exciting moments, and sees the director often playing with similar CG tools to absolutely gobsmacking visual result, this is very much a different type of movie. It tries for a dreamy goodness filled with a sense of wide-eyed wonder more than cinematic spectacle. And it achieves it. Mostly.