Walt Disney Pictures and director Steven Spielberg have teamed up for the first time in a charming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG that captures the wit and whimsy of the children’s book and adds a sense of beauty and wonder.
The late Roald Dahl, the author of such classic books turned films as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Matilda, never pandered to children. He wasn’t afraid to touch on adult themes and important life lessons in his journey to a happy ending.
Spielberg’s best films — like Jaws or E.T. — also add a sense of danger to otherwise good-natured adventures. It is this quality that makes him a perfect fit for the BFG, the story of a Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) who brings an orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) to Giant Land and introduces her to the idea of dream catching while fending off people-eating giants.
In his book, Dahl included social commentary about humans being the only animals that kill their own kind. These conversations between BFG and Sophie are removed, which, while disappointing, is hardly surprising. The more graphic visuals of blood and bone crunching also are left out, which is understandable. It is one thing to describe such things; it is another thing to depict it realistically.
Thankfully, what is retained in Melissa Mathison’s script is the BFG’s unique way of speaking. Nearly all the dialogue is lifted directly from the book, including the BFG’s tendency to use malapropisms like “human bean” and “humbug servant.” Dahl also has the BFG use made-up words like “whizzpoppers,” a wonderfully vivid term for flatulence. While Mathison, who wrote E.T., adds material, including giving Sophie insomnia and a tragic backstory for the BFG, and cuts out parts, the fact that so much of the language remains helps the film capture what made the book so charming.
Spielberg matches the clever language with equally clever visuals. When the BFG is in the human world to blow dreams into the minds of “little chiddlers,” he uses his cloak to hide in dark corners. Spielberg also uses extraordinarily long takes with seemingly no cuts. This is most effective in a sequence where other giants invade the BFG’s home, forcing Sophie to go into hiding.
Spielberg and production designer Rick Carter depart from the muted colour palette describe in the book to create a world of lush greens and, when the BFG and Sophie visit Dream Country, bright colours.
Even if this isn’t faithful to the source material, it is visually more interesting — like switching the silver slippers to ruby ones in The Wizard of Oz — and allows Spielberg to create some truly wondrous visuals, particularly in Dream Country.
The acting throughout is terrific with Rylance, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for his work in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, again serving up a full and robust performance. He makes the BFG more than just a gentle giant, and adds an underpinning of sadness.
The success of Rylance’s performance can be summed up in the moment where Sophie tells him she loves the way he speaks. The look of sorrow that had been on his face melts into exuberant joy.
Barnhill matches Rylance beat for beat. She is a natural, unforced actor and makes every moment with the BFG, a remarkably realistic CG creation based on Rylance’s motion-captured performance, believable. Sophie is written as brave and resourceful, and Barnhill captures that beautifully.
Penelope Wilton is likewise charming in a delightful and funny sequence in which the BFG meets the queen of England. These portions of the film have roles for Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall as part of the queen’s staff and they, like the rest of the cast, give relaxed performance.
The other noteworthy performance comes from Jemaine Clement, who brings an effectively menacing quality to Fleshlumpeater, the leader of the nine brutish giants.
Thanks to its dry wit, lovely acting and awe-inspiring visuals, The BFG will appeal to the whole gropeflunking family.