The works of British author Roald Dahl have been a constant source of material for filmmakers, with almost every one of his books (especially those for children) adapted for either film or television. Directors as diverse as Wes Anderson, Tim Burton and Nicholas Roeg have adapted his work to varying degrees of success, but it’s a surprise, considering Dahl’s mixture of sentiment and black humour, that legendary director Steven Spielberg hasn’t tackled one of his books... until now. With ‘The BFG’, one of the most beloved of filmmakers adapts one of the great works of one of the most beloved of writers, and the combination is as magical as you would expect.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is plucked from her lonely life in a British children’s orphanage by a large giant (Mark Rylance), who takes her back to Giant Country on the other side of the Giant’s Causeway. However, unlike the other giants who love eating little children, this one has chosen not to, instead filling his likewise lonely life by collecting, creating and distributing dreams. Together, Sophie and this Big Friendly Giant form an unlikely partnership, and together they come up with a plan to stop the other giants from stealing and eating children, and finding a place for one another in the world.
‘The BFG’ feels like perfect Spielberg material, returning to themes of loneliness and the need to find one's place and family. Most of all, it seems like a distant companion piece to his 1982 masterpiece ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’, so much so that he collaborated with ‘E.T.’ screenwriter Melissa Mathison on the adaptation. It’s a beautiful match, Mathison’s screenplay capturing the anarchic playfulness of Dahl’s writing in a way many before her have either failed or not bothered to do. Once placed in Spielberg’s hands, it’s woven into a magical and surprisingly gentle film, brimming with humour and energy but coloured by a bittersweet sadness few other directors are capable of. Neither Sophie or The BFG show weakness in their loneliness, but in each other they find the chance to explore their vulnerability and share in the joy they see in the world. The film moves at a considered place, Spielberg spending significant stretches of time within each turn of the narrative, but while you feel the pace, it never detracts.
‘The BFG’ feels like a kind of dream, full of colour and light and preposterous twists and turns. Dangers are around every corner, but the tone is always kept light and bouncy, and the film takes any moment it can to sprinkle as much humour throughout as possible. At the screening I attended, the cinema was punctuated with the joyful sounds of children laughing, whether at the silly, simplistic humour of The BFG’s mispronunciations or at the perfectly executed anarchic toilet humour. It also looks absolutely stunning, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Rick Carter crafting a visually sumptuous world of vibrant, shadowy colours. There’s so much detail in this film, a wonderful combination of digital work and practical sets. As expected, the score is also a marvel, John Williams continuing to build on the burst of creative energy he showed with ‘The Force Awakens’.
Perhaps the most breathtaking achievement of ‘The BFG’ though is the title character himself, a beautiful piece of performance capture animation that feels both tangible and completely fantastical at once. Mark Rylance is a knock-out as The BFG, revelling in the innocence, the good humour and the enormous heart of the character. His performance is remarkably detailed, and all that detail is preserved and heightened by the visual effects artists tasked with bringing the final product to the screen. What makes it truly work though is that the character comes before the spectacle, so that you quickly forget you’re watching something artificial and connect with him as a living thing.
‘The BFG’ feels like perfect Spielberg material, returning to themes of loneliness and the need to find one's place and family.
The "human beans" are just as terrific. Spielberg has a genuine find in Ruby Barnhill, full of fearless spunk and tremendous maturity. Sophie is instantly likeable and relatable, Barnhill pulling off that rare thing in a children’s performance of being precocious but never irritating. In fact, as great as Rylance is, it’s Barnhill who holds the film together, and their chemistry is incredibly dynamic. There is a tremendous love and affection between these two performers that comes flying through the pixels. The rest of the ensemble is equally exciting, including Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, with Jermaine Clements and Bill Hader stepping in as some of the more fearsome giants.
In the hands of any other director, ‘The BFG’ might have been as entertaining an adventure, but without Spielberg, it’s doubtful it would have had much heart. Rather than rushing through it, he allows moments to sit, for Sophie and The BFG to stop and take in the world around them, to consider their place in it. They sit on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, the desire to play and wonder, and the knowledge that responsibility and maturity are just around the corner. Spielberg has always understood more than most that sentimentality is about death rather than life, and that this sense of mortality is what children connect to. You can see it in his best work, and you can see it in this film. By taking his time, he makes the film a far more powerful experience than it might have been, and one that children are ready to embrace if the response from our screening is anything to go by. It’s a tremendous technical feat, but more importantly, ’The BFG’ is an absolutely magical experience, a gorgeous and gentle film that is destined to become a children’s classic. If only more children's films made today were this accomplished and had this much heart.