The BFG

Year: 2016
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Rebecca Hall
Written by Chris Winterbottom

I have wanted to see Roald Dahl’s dark and sinister children’s story adapted to the big screen for many a year now. I grew up reading The BFG and it has left an imprint on me ever since. It was a story that really got under my skin; I found the novel both frightening and fascinating. So imagine my giddiness when Steven Spielberg announced he would be bringing this much loved book to the silver screen. Knowing Spielberg’s affinity with creating wonderful children’s films and the groundbreaking source material as a foundation, I had high hopes for this film.

The story sees Sophie, a young orphan, captured from her bedroom window by a Giant who – rather than acting like his bothersome kin – is a Big Friendly Giant, hence the name. Together, they form the most unlikely friendship and formulate a plot to rid the human world and Giant Country of the other evil giants.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Mark Rylance is superb as the titular character, bringing depth and sophistication to a role that could easily have become rather two dimensional. Rylance manages to bring so much humanity to a role almost entirely created with CGI; a feat many other filmmakers and actors fail to achieve. Make no mistake, this is every bit as complete a performance from Rylance as his recent Oscar-winning outing in ‘Bridge of Spies’.

Kudos should go to the visual effects team who have created a living, breathing giant, who appears every bit as real as Ruby Barnhill’s Sophie. Not only that, the visual effects team, along with Spielberg, have created a sumptuous feast for the eyes, particularly when the story sees the two main characters in Dream Country. The filmmakers have managed to capture the wonder and excitement of this fantastical realm, staying true to the imagination of Dahl himself.

Ruby Barnhill is also solid as Sophie, although her performance probably lacks the nuance of other more experienced child stars. Nonetheless, she delivers a watchable and sometimes commanding turn in her role, and she manages to build the connection between her character and the BFG, which is so integral to making this movie work. The film hangs on the two leads’ relationship – the connection between giant and girl. One false move, one misstep and the film would come crashing down. I’m pleased to say there are no missteps; certainly in terms of performance.

There are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the movie, but the hilarity really ensues in the final act. Without giving anything away, it involves plenty of “whizzpopping” and slapstick humour, and the movie is all the better for it. There are nods aplenty too, as Spielberg regularly references his own movies, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual reference to ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’. The film is also somewhat of a spiritual sister to Spielberg’s family classic ‘E.T’ – where Elliot and E.T. are two sides of the same coin, so are our big friendly giant and Sophie. Both pairings are lonely, both are looking for a better life, both are oppressed by their surroundings. It is an interesting concept that adds depth to the film.

For many, this will be a hugely enjoyable cinematic experience, particularly those with small children. Despite the many positives in this film, for me there is one massive problem which I have been unable to overlook. Whilst the novel was aimed at young readers, there was always a powerful, sinister edge to the story which, as mentioned previously, really got under my skin (in a good way). This nastiness has been ripped clean out of the film’s heart, where Spielberg has chosen to favour light-hearted whimsy. This is what really let the film down, for me. 

It may be that my muted excitement for the film is due to it not being the film I wanted it to be. The child-eating giants are poorly designed in terms of aesthetic and the voice work really undermines their threat; certainly in comparison to the novel and even the TV movie from 1989. The story of The BFG is wonderful, but it is nothing without that claustrophobic, oppressive threat from the unfriendly giants. For all the film’s beauty and expert craftsmanship, it would be remiss of me to point out that the film does lack a genuine threat; a conflict to the characters that they must overcome. There are times where the film is really exhilarating, even moving. Largely, this film is a great, big smile on a summer’s day. What I wanted was the same, but with the looming threat of thunderstorms in the distance; a bitterness in the air.

I can understand why the filmmakers chose to omit this tonal choice. Perhaps the regular news headlines involving the abuse of children may have forced the filmmakers hand, but for me, there is meant to be some ambiguity in the titular character’s initial actions. That’s why the story lends itself to darkness. We know, by the end, the character is inherently good, but there is a distinct wariness at the start where the reader is not entirely sure what The BFG’s motives are. Without the darkness of the novel, the film will never be more than a disappointing, albeit brilliantly made, interpretation of Dahl’s novel.

All in all this is a wonderfully crafted movie, with plenty of laughs, and maybe even a few tears. But there is a fundamental problem with the film that, for me, really held back this movie from being a classic; the lack of threat and the lack of a sinister edge. Taking the film as it is, it’s immensely enjoyable, but having wanted a different interpretation of the novel, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. 

Chris’ rating: 7.0 out of 10
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