The BFG, 2016.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall.
A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.
Several of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s stories have been made into films over the years, most of which the author despised because they deviated from his books in significant ways. Ironically, one of the few adaptations he approved of was the 1989 British animated version of the The BFG, which was very faithful to the source material. Spielberg has reportedly been trying to adapt the book for over 20 years, and now, with the help of his E.T. screenwriter (the late Melissa Mathison) and his new favourite actor Mark Rylance, he has. In many ways it’s a successful and faithful adaptation, but some of Dahl’s dark wit and delicious nastiness has been sanitised by Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality.
The story, for anyone who somehow managed to grow up without reading it, involves a young orphan called Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who is snatched from her bed in the middle of the night by a Big Friendly Giant and taken to Giant Country, where there are also bigger and much less friendly giants (with such ominous names as Bloodbottler, Gizzardgulper and Fleshlumpeater). The BFG’s job is to catch, create and distribute dreams to the children of the world, while the other giants only venture to Earth to steal and eat children (or ‘human beans’, as they call them). Sophie comes up with a plan to stop them by using the power of dreams to convince the Queen of England that giants are real, so she can send in the army to capture them.
The giants themselves have been brought to life with motion capture technology, which Spielberg first used (to debatable effect) on Tintin. For me, motion capture has its uses – it’s very effective when creating fantastical creatures like Gollum or the Na’avi in Avatar, but I’m not a fan when film-makers use it to create human-like creatures that could just as easily have been created more effectively using make-up. Mark Rylance is superb as the BFG (he has a warm twinkly face, and the perfect voice for delivering the character’s whimsically weird phrases), but apart from his elongated neck, there’s no reason why his character couldn’t have been created without CGI. The same goes for the bad giants, who apart from Jermaine Clement’s sneering Fleshlumpeater, are no more memorable or distinctive than the giants in Bryan Singer’s lacklustre Jack the Giant Slayer (apparently Bill Hader voices one of them – why bother having a name actor for a character who barely gets any lines?). I can’t help but think the film would have had a lot more charm if they’d built real sets and filmed the characters using Lord of the Rings-style perspective tricks. However, CGI is used to very good effect when it comes to sequences involving dreams – the design of Dream Country (a massive tree surrounded by a magical lake where dreams float around like lost spirits) is wonderfully imaginative, and the scene where the BFG constructs the dream they use to convince the Queen with is dazzling. It’s just a shame that the scene that follows it is so dull and lifeless…
The Queen is played by Penelope Wilton, who, despite looking the part, can never quite get a handle on whether she’s supposed to be a kindly old lady or a hard-to-impress authoritarian. Even worse are Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, both of them playing the most insignificant and badly-handled roles of their careers (is Rafe Spall’s accent meant to be American? His pronunciation of ‘gardens’ suggests as much). The scene where they all meet Sophie must be the most stilted and badly paced of Spielberg’s career – the pointless pauses between each sentence make for the most painfully protracted conversations since the later Harry Potter films (I actually found myself leaning forward in my chair, trying to will the actors to get a move on!) The following sequence, where the BFG has breakfast in Buckingham Palace’s dining hall, is mildly amusing (ever wanted to see CGI corgis fart? You’re in for a treat!), but it would have been so much more effective as a brisk montage.
In the past, some film-makers have altered or tweaked Dahl’s stories to good effect (for example, the reappearance of Spiker and Sponge at the end of Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach, and pretty much everything Wes Anderson did with his aptly-named Fantastic Mr Fox), but while Melissa Mathison’s changes don’t ruin the story, they don’t particularly improve it either. For example, there is a brief mention of a boy that the BFG used to know whom the other giants apparently found and ate, which is meant to dissuade Sophie from thinking about planning against them. This would have been a good obstacle in the plot, but it’s forgotten about within minutes and it involves a dark and frankly bizarre scene where Sophie jumps off a balcony just to get the BFG’s attention! The threat the other giants pose isn’t properly communicated either – in the animated version they were portrayed as violent, blood-thirsty beasts, whereas in this version they’re little more than dim-witted bullies that annoy the BFG rather than terrify him. No doubt this aspect of the story was toned down by Disney studio execs worried about frightening their young target audience, but as Walt Disney himself knew all too well, kids LIKE being scared! Hence why his early films (and Dahl’s books) remain eternally popular.
Like with last years poor Pan reboot, the casting department apparently conducted a worldwide search for someone to play the child protagonist in this film, and like with Pan I find it hard to believe that the actor they chose was truly the best one they came across. Ruby Barnhill is resoundingly okay as Sophie, but Spielberg hardly coaxes a Henry Thomas or Haley Joel Osment quality performance out of her. Admittedly, like with Neel Sethi in this year’s Jungle Book remake, she had the disadvantage of having to do most of her acting against green screen, and it also doesn’t help that one of her first lines “You’re bladdered! Go away or I’ll call the coppers!” creates an awful first impression (American screenwriters trying to write ‘authentic British’ dialogue can be so embarrassing!). She does have some very touching moments with Rylance, though – her final voice-over ends the film on a gentle, heart-warming note, and he has a wonderful speech before the final set-piece about a happy dream he found involving Sophie’s future family. The fact that the two characters end the film apart is perhaps the biggest deviation from the book, but the aforementioned scenes make sense of the change.
Although John Williams’ score is sweet and effective, it’s unlikely to remembered with the same fondness as his scores for E.T. or the Harry Potter films. And although I do miss the days of Spielberg’s traditional carefully-considered shot compositions, his wandering ‘virtual camera’ does produce a couple of inspired moments (two long takes when Sophie runs and hides from the bad giants are particularly noteworthy). All in all, whatever issues I may have with this adaptation, enough of the book’s story and spirit has made it to the screen to make Dahl proud – not a Gene Wilder-Wonka classic, but not a Johnny Depp-Wonka disaster either.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★