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