I’ve been guilty in the past of declining the chance to see what I’d classify as a kid’s film at the cinema, and I reckon in many cases I’ve been right! Not to mention choosing good ones like The Lego Movie or Inside Out. Last week, I was asked if I wanted to see The BFG and said no – but I changed my mind, reminding myself I had really enjoyed the book as a kid. And I felt a right prat for not going the week before, because it’s a brilliant adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s best stories, and shows Steven Spielberg is still the master when it comes to children’s films.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) leads a lonely, quiet life in an orphanage in 1980s London, until one night a mysterious giant abducts her and takes her to Giant Land. The giant, later called the Big Friendly Giant/BFG (Mark Rylance), is in fact one of many giants, but the only one doing good, catching dreams and giving them to people as they sleep. Sophie and the BFG become friends, and plan a way to stop the other rampaging giants once and for all, with the help of the Queen (Penelope Wilton).
I’m going to assume most people have read or are aware of the book – Spielberg’s direction, and the late Melissa Mathison’s script, brought back many memories for me. They manage to utilise the very latest in cinema technology to make the story tangible, but maintain the peril, heart and loneliness at the centre of Dahl’s book (which he wrote after his own daughter died young). Sophie and the BFG are lonely individuals brought together, and like a lot of Dahl’s heroes or heroines, Sophie comes from a sad childhood into a world of wonder – echoed by the BFG’s lonely existence and need for company. If anyone was going to make this film work, it’s Spielberg (for previous successes with kids, see ET, Close Encounters or War of the Worlds), and he manages to create scenes of wonder and colour throughout (in particular the reveal of Dream Country).
His casting of Ruby Barnhill carries on his streak of casting competent, engaging young kids in his movies, and she captures the sadness, incredulity and joy of the character very well for a young kid. Mark Rylance (who’s quickly becoming Spielberg’s newest partner-in-crime after Bridge of Spies) is excellent as the BFG, with the special effects and motion capture disturbingly good at accurately capturing his face and mannerisms. The two are well cast simply because they sell the idea of the orphan and the lonely giant, and Rylance’s pitch-perfect depiction of the main character gives The BFG some emotional heft in surprising places.
Other actors appear in cameos (this is happening a lot lately!), with Wilton’s QE2 fittingly regal alongside a largely wasted Rebecca Hall (as her servant Mary) and a bizarrely-accented Rafe Spall (as the butler Mr. Tibbs). This part of the story feels the most rushed, surprisingly so when it features most of the actors. Of the other giants, Jermaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords) plays the loathsome leader Fleshlumpeater with menacing, Cockney glee, though the remainder (including one voiced by US actor Bill Hader – you would have no idea it was him) are largely forgettable.
Certain changes were made to the story and make for a more melancholy ending than I remembered in the book, but on the whole the plot is carefully lifted and tweaked from the book, building on your childhood images of the story and giving the audience a vivid, colourful depiction of Giant Land, Dream Country and London in the 1980s (which would NEVER have looked so good). The effects are – as I said before – strongly bizarre, colourful and sometimes astonishing in execution, particularly with the BFG, Fleshlumpeater and the dreams – while John Williams’ slight, touching score does exactly what it needs to: towards the end of the film, a single, solemn but memorable theme emerges, adding to an emotional cocktail of plot and characters.
I would have liked the film to spend more time on the story, particularly in the latter half, where it seems to rush after taking its time earlier – but besides that, it was a very good, quite true adaptation of the book. Steven Spielberg seems to have this innate ability to take a film aimed at children and make it work for all ages, and with the whole audience adults (most older than me), Dahl’s story clearly means a lot to many people even now. If you liked the book, this is a great way to see it put on screen.