Review – The BFG

If anyone could be relied upon to capture the magic of one of children’s fiction’s most beloved stories it’s Steven Spielberg.

Dahl famously hated virtually every adaptation of his books - had he lived to see Spielberg's take on The BFG he would surely have deemed it scrum diddly umptious

Dahl famously hated virtually every adaptation of his books – had he lived to see Spielberg’s take on The BFG he would surely have deemed it scrum diddly umptious

Following a string of more serious pictures, Spielberg returns to the type of family friendly cinema he is arguably most loved for.

Perhaps learning from the mistakes of his last foray into such territory – 2011’s The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn – which was entirely computer generated and failed to escape from the dreaded uncanny valley, the bearded one instead has a human cast playing off a (literally) towering motion-captured performance by the great Mark Rylance and, to a lesser extent, a supporting cast of not-so-friendly giants led by Jermaine Clement’s Fleshlumpeater.

The BFG (Mark Rylance) and Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG

The BFG (Mark Rylance) and Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG

It’s fair to say that such technology has continued to evolve at a remarkable pace in the intervening years but, as Andy Serkis’ game-changing turn as Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings films demonstrated 15 years earlier, it’s the interplay between such characters that determines whether the audience is going to buy a 24ft giant interacting with a young girl.

The moment the film definitively answers that question comes near the start when, having spied the BFG late one night from the open window of the orphanage she calls home, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) runs to her bed only to be smuggled away by the giant.

The BFG (Mark Rylance) snatches up Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG

The BFG (Mark Rylance) snatches up Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG

It’s a technically bravura sequence (lent typically enriching musical support from John Williams), full of potential threat, that acts as a springboard for the BFG’s breathless journey out of London (in which he pulls various shapes to trick passing pedestrians and motorists that he’s a lamppost, for instance) and away into Giant Country.

The BFG, Sophie learns, is a dreamcatcher whose kindness and benevolence is in stark contrast to the “boys” – child-eating giants who pick on the “runt” and suspect he is hiding a human. Determined to stop the gang from helping themselves to more hapless youngsters, Sophie realises that she and the BFG must go straight to the Queen if they are going to stop them.

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) can't believe what she's just seen in The BFG

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) can’t believe what she’s just seen in The BFG

Roald Dahl’s stories have remained so beloved by kids the world over because they resolutely refuse to treat their target audience as small-minded children. In Dahl’s fiction, magic and danger exist side by side and his feisty young heroes are more than capable of thinking for themselves.

Featuring a lovingly crafted screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison (whose previous collaboration with the bearded one, 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, shares many The BFG‘s qualities), Spielberg is simpatico with Dahl’s sensibilities, which begs the question of why it’s taken so long for him to adapt one of the writer’s works.

The magical dreaam tree in The BFG

The magical dream tree in The BFG

The film perhaps spends a little too long establishing the relationship between the giant and Sophie (a curious complaint I appreciate bearing in mind the strength of both performances), while the special effects involving Sophie being transported in the BFG’s hand or evading the other giants feel a bit weightless. The final confrontation between the “boys” and a fleet of helicopters sent by Her Majesty is also a little underwhelming.

However, The BFG really comes into its own during the enchanting sequence in Dream Country and the potential stumbling block of the final act encounter between the Queen (the always wonderful Penelope Wilton), the BFG and Sophie (it’s arguably the weakest part of the book) which is handled with mastery and not a little hilarity as the whizzpopping effects of the giant’s fizzy frobscottle drink affects even the corgis.

The BFG and the not-so-friendly big giants in The BFG

The BFG and the not-so-friendly big giants in The BFG

The previously unknown Barnhill is lovely as the wide-eyed young girl whose wish to be taken care of is granted by a giant with his own unique version of English language, but it is Rylance who breathes warmth and an ageless kindness into the titular role and gives a performance equal in stature to his Oscar-winning turn in Spielberg’s previous movie Bridge Of Spies.

Dahl famously hated virtually every adaptation of his books – had he lived to see Spielberg’s take on The BFG he would surely have deemed it scrum diddly umptious.

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17 comments

  1. le0pard13 · August 1, 2016

    Been on the fence with this one, but I should get it a go. Fine review, Mark.

    • Three Rows Back · August 28

      Have you managed to watch this yet mate?

      • le0pard13 · August 28

        Not yet, and it’s only in outlying are theaters now so I may have to wait till home market release. This film has been somewhat overlooked here in the States. Did okay business, but not the usual ‘Spielberg’ return.

      • Three Rows Back · August 28

        That surprises me as I honestly thought (as I’m sure the studio did) that this was a well known enough book that would receive Spielberg’s assured touch. Well, I hope when you do catch it that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  2. Ben · August 2, 2016

    I think the fact that the magic and danger are not side by side is why this doesn’t work as well as it should. It seems slightly too “safe” and doesn’t convey the threat in the book that makes the magic so thrilling.

    • Three Rows Back · August 28

      Hey Ben. Fair enough; appreciate that there are those out there for whom this doesn’t work and I can respect that. I hear what you’re saying about the threat – the moment that the BFG reaches into the orphanage and snatches Sophie is a moment of real threat. It could have done with more of this, I’ll give you that!

  3. Stu · August 2, 2016

    Looks/sounds like you loved it! As I’ve never read any Dahl I wasn’t going to bother with this but I’ve seen a few reviews to convince me that I should (this one included). Plus…it’s Spielberg! I’ll try and catch it before it leaves cinemas if I can.

    • Three Rows Back · August 28

      Yeah Stu, I had a blast with it. I’m a big Spielberg and Dahl fan, so I was receptive to this. However, it’s better than I thought it might have been.

      • Stu · August 29

        I still haven’t caught this. I might try and get to it before it leaves the cinema, it’s probably worth it!

      • Three Rows Back · August 29

        Kinda. You won’t miss much by watching it on the small screen mate.

  4. ruth · August 4, 2016

    Hi Mark, I’m not familiar w/ Dahl’s work at all so I came into this *blindly* because of Spielberg. I’m not as fond of it as you, I was actually quite bored watching it until the third act in the palace which was quite hilarious.

    • Three Rows Back · August 28

      Oh really? Sorry to hear you were a bit bored. I love Dahl’s writing (I grew up reading all of his books) so I was the right audience for this. As you can see, I really got into it!

  5. Mark Walker · August 9, 2016

    Nice one , Mark. We seem to be on the same wavelength with this. It was a good, but flawed, film. I had issues with the pace and the final third with the Queen didn’t sit well at all. It got a little too childish at that point for me. Still, Spielberg has a fine handle o n the proceedings and I found plenty to enjoy.

    • Three Rows Back · August 28

      Hey Mark; nice to hear from you. Sorry for the late reply (I’m training for a triathlon at the moment and finding it very difficult to get to the blog). As I mentioned in my review, I thought the finale was a little underwhelming. I’d forgotten about the section in Buckingham Palace from the book and in the film, although funny, it does slow the film down. That said, Spielberg I think gets the tone just about right.

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  7. Tom · August 13, 2016

    Ah, so very happy to see this BFG won you over like it did me. And I’m especially in agreement with the sentiment that Rylance puts down a performance “equal in stature to his Oscar-winning turn in Spielberg’s previous movie ..”. Amen to that my friend.

    I wasnt so happy that this movie pretty much bombed in the States though, but I suppose that is to be expected as I find The BFG to be one of Dahl’s more obscure titles. Still a great one.

    • Three Rows Back · August 28

      Yeah, it was a real shame that the film failed to take off at the box office. It’s done well over here, which doesn’t really surpise me. Dahl is much loved in the UK.

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