Roald Dahl was one of my most beloved authors growing up. His stories were full of imagination, entertainment, and illustrations by Quentin Blake that seemed to fit perfectly with the voice of the author. My favorites were The Witches, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG, which Steven Spielberg has brought to the big screen. It marks the second consecutive collaboration with Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for Bridge of Spies, as the title character.
Sophie (Ruby Burnhill) is a precocious orphan who has difficulty sleeping. At night, she sneaks downstairs and does small tasks that the woman running the orphanage overlooked, like sorting the mail and locking the door. One particular night, she happens to look out her window and see a giant that reaches in, grabs her out of her bed, and whisks her away to Giant Country. The giant (Rylance), tells her that because she has seen him, she has to live there with him forever, and must stay in his house because other, bigger giants will eat her, though he himself does not eat children. Slowly, a friendship develops between Sophie and The Big Friendly Giant (BFG) and he starts to take her out with him to his work, which is capturing dreams, putting dreams together, and delivering them to people. Eventually, the other giants become suspicious, convinced The BFG has a human and they are determined to find Sophie. When The BFG and Sophie find out what the giants have been up to, Sophie concocts a plan to involve the Queen of England (Penelope Wilson) to help stop them.
Steven Spielberg is a versatile director and has made his fair share of films involving children and fantasy, though it has surprisingly been quite a long time since he has worked on a film where a young child was the central character of the story; you have to go all the way back to 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence with Haley Joel Osment. With The BFG, he has cast young newcomer Ruby Barnhill as one of the co-leads. She is a good young actress. Casting the wrong girl in this role could have been disastrous, especially considering how much acting she is likely doing with a green screen. She is quite believable as Sophie. I don’t want this to sound like I am damning with faint praise, but she is perfectly adequate in the role, it’s not a performance that stands out too much for reasons good or bad, though she does have some touching, poignant moments with The BFG. As the only non-CGI enhanced character for most of the film, she grounds it as best as a young child actress is capable of doing.
The film needs that grounding because so much of it is about special effects of rendering Mark Rylance as The BFG. He is a giant that stands 24 feet tall. The special effects involving The BFG himself are an amazing success. They have really perfectly realized this beloved character from the book and made him seem real. It’s not just making Rylance a 24-tall giant that looks like Mark Rylance. The difficult task is in the shape of his head and the elongated neck of The BFG, as well as the big ears. For the most part, none of that looks unrealistic. There is no “uncanny valley” aspect to his features.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said across the board for all of the special effects in the movie. Some of the special effects involving Sophie sitting in the palm of The BFG’s hand as he walks about his cottage have an obvious look of special effects that is probably unavoidable. For as far as special effects have advanced, heck this film couldn’t have been made 20 years ago (or, made well anyway), there is still quite a ways to go.
The rest of the giants (who are portrayed by, amongst others, Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader), while it is an impressive visual spectacle that they are 50 feet tall and their size is juxtaposed to that of The BFG, do look like they are CGI rendered more so than The BFG. The bigger giants pick on The BFG, who they’ve nicknamed “Runt” and take great pleasure in throwing him around and harassing him. They’re also generally quite dumb and hate water and vegetables.
Underneath the prosthetics and CGI enhancements, Rylance gives a great performance as The BFG. He’s a lonely, friendly being who is kind and protective, but also doesn’t stand up for himself. Rylance nails the way The BFG speaks, messing up his words frequently and talking about the joys of frobscottle and whizzpoppers while he eats mainly snozzcumbers. Rylance gives The BFG an air of vulnerability and emotional depth too.
The plot is mostly faithful to what I remember of the story from reading it as a kid. Some things are changed a bit, no doubt. When the story shifts to include the Queen, and her maid, Mary (Rebecca Hall), and her butler Mr. Tibbs (Rafe Spall), the transition feels a bit jarring. It comes right out of the book, but the parts of the film involving them do not work quite as well as they do in the book. And some of the humor of when The BFG sits down for breakfast with Sophie and the Queen is a little broad, though sure to be pleasing to young kids watching it.
Despite some uneven parts, The BFG as a whole does ultimately win you over. Rylance as The BFG is a real treat. There have been quite a few adaptations of Dahl’s works over the last 40 or so years, dating back to Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Some of those are better overall stories, but on the whole, this is one of the better adaptations of his work. Spielberg and company have created a film that honors the source material and brings it to life in a way that captures the spirit of the book. Despite lacking in star power in front of the camera, which is likely the reason it hasn’t found an audience, it is nonetheless a film that can and should be entertaining to young kids, especially if they have read the book.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars