What do you get when you take a beloved children’s novel, an Oscar nominated screenwriter of beloved classics like The Black Stallion and E.T., and the Oscar-winning, world-renowned director of dozens of films among the most successful ever made?
Well, you get The BFG, based on the book by Roald Dahl, a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison and helmed by Señor Spielbergo himself (or at least his non-Mexican, unionized replacement). As per the title this is a tale of a big, friendly giant (voiced and mocap’d by Steven’s newest go-to collaborator Mark Rylance), who captures a nosy little orphan girl Sophie (played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill), schlepping her to the land of giants. There she encounters a number of noticeably less friends big’uns, including a particularly grumpy neighbour named Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement).
From there the two set off on an unlikely journey, forming a kind of Grandfather/Granddaughter bond that’s both charming and sweet. Along the way they encounter all sorts, including Her Majesty Elizabeth (played exquisitely by Penelope Wilton), and get into nonsense culminating in gaseous utterances both unbecoming and unbelievable.
The renderings of the giants does take some getting used to, but the push/pulling of human characteristics into gigantic form is sometimes is quite effective, sometimes a bit startling. We’re well within uncanny valley territory here, so that just when you settle down and accept the visuals as being as “real” as the actors they’re playing against something odd (and perhaps subconscious) happens on the visual or performance level and we’re jostled out to be reminded of the fakery.
Pacing-wise the film feels a bit more deliberate than some of its other kin set out as “kid’s films”, and for those raised on a diet of pop culture references, cloying pop songs and whiz-bang moments may find their patience taxed. In other words, despite the cutting-edge technology at play this feels very much an old-fashioned, classical take on this type of tale. With enough space to breathe the characters are able to connect, making the iconic/archetypical beats to play out in convincing ways.
Much of this is helped by the two key performers. Rylance plays the BFG in a tremendously sympathetic way, exuding a warmth that’s infectious. Barnhill does a remarkable job at avoiding many of the inherent pitfalls in her character, her wide-eyed surprise never coming across as cloying, and her growing confidence never precocious or obnoxious.
Put together we have a film that feels both of and beyond its time, a throwback film from artisans looking to craft something that works for all ages. For those that are looking for a film experience that can be shared across generations this is an excellent antidote to many of the more saccharine, forgettable works that get churned out by committee. Very much a labour of love (and decades in the making!) it’s clear that this translation of Dahl’s world to the big screen will be a highlight for many this summer season. While the cynic in me prefers the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox, a far more sardonic version of Dahl’s worldview, BFG nonetheless feels an authentic translation of the original work to the big screen, sensitively directed by Spielberg who feels very much at home back in the land of unabashed fantasy.