In adapting the works of Roald Dahl, a filmmaker has a wealth of material to work with. A legendary author whose stories mix British eccentricities with a fairy-tale heart and/or some truly twisted turns. Perhaps this is why many of the films adapted from Dahl’s work, have carried a certain kind of enchantment with them, from Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Danny DeVito’s Matilda to Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach and Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Dahl’s work has certainly translated well to the big screen many times- even if the author disowned Stuart’s Wonka film- but in many senses the biggest story of all, is his 1982 story ‘The BFG’. Already adapted once in animated form in 1989 (a version which Dahl heartily approved of), this new live-action film from classic cinematic storyteller Steven Spielberg is arguably the biggest scaled attempt at adapting a Dahl story yet.
The BFG sees young orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) witness a giant (Mark Rylance) roaming the streets of London, being seen by a human encourages him to scoop this little witness up and take her back with him to his home in Giant Country. As she and this big, friendly giant begin to bond, Sophie discovers that the BFG is bullied by other giants and throws himself into his work, capturing and making dreams. Worse still, the giants catch Sophie’s scent putting her in danger but Sophie relies on her bravery not only to keep herself safe but also to try and save the BFG from his life of fear. In bringing this towering literary tale to the big screen, Steven Spielberg has used contemporary innovations to tell an old school story and while the result is not always seamless, it is regularly enchanting.
The late great Melissa Mathison’s (E.T) screenplay struggles with some action elements but soars when it comes to heart. The BFG features a dazzling array of visual powers but for all its grandness, it is the quieter moments of storytelling and the emotive connection between its two leads that elevates the film above any lacking elements. The story starts off in truly excellent fashion, feeling immediately of another age, using a transportative power that comes with both Dahl’s story and Spielberg’s approach to family movies. In fact the film is as much a throwback to Spielberg’s memorable days of enthralling family flicks, as it is an adaptation of the source material, which may annoy purists expecting a faithful incarnation of Dahl’s book, a few things are altered- this is especially evident come the finale.
That being said, The BFG has an unshakable charm thanks to its magnificent leads. Barnhill at points seems like she could annoy but almost as soon as the thought enters your head, she retains the innocence and yet unexpected strength of her character. However, in a fantastically realized motion-capture performance, it is the magnificent Rylance who cradles your heart. As the BFG he forms an immediate chemistry with Barnhill and his readings of the lines of Dahlian vocabulary are simply squiffling and at times poignant. He is the film’s brimming core and makes this whole adventure the smile inducing watch that it ends up being. Sadly the supporting cast, while good, cannot hope to match the power of the leads. Also the villains, the BFG’s long-windedly titled giant tormentors, are pretty forgettable (though the anti-bullying is much welcome).
From fart jokes to some prolonged set pieces, this film does have some excess but is carried forward by a youthful energy from Spielberg’s direction and John Williams’ equally playful scoring. Some gags miss the mark but there are laughs throughout when the dialogue delves into Dahl’s world and when the film uses its delightfully dreamlike touch, it becomes an absolute joy, with many sequences (the initial meeting over a snozzcumber soup and a funnier than expected palace dining scene) really standing out. Also fans of the book will notice a kind hearted little nod to illustrator Quentin Blake, during one of the film’s darker themed moments.
Many say Spielberg has lost his touch of late, perhaps down to this film’s box office bombing status in the states but Dahl’s work has often struggled to translate successfully – financially that is – to the big screen, especially to an American audience. Plus, with Spielberg’s recent works like last year’s acclaimed Bridge of Spies and his underrated 2011 release year, that saw both his version of Hérge series The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and Michael Murpurgo adaptation War Horse released (two films this writer very much encourages people to revisit), it is hard to argue that this giant of movies has lost his touch. The BFG may not be faultless but Rylance’s charm and the narrative’s heart ensure this piece of old fashioned cinematic adventuring is still a hopscotchy piece of family entertainment.
THE BFG / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: STEVEN SPIELBERG / SCREENPLAY: MELISSA MATHISON / STARRING: MARK RYLANCE, RUBY BARNHILL, PENELOPE WILTON, JEMAINE CLEMENT, RAFE SPALL, REBECCA HALL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 9/10