Those familiar with Roald Dahl’s 1982 book The BFG cannot deny its charm. Like so much of Dahl’s literature for children, the words of this story leap off the page in a kaleidoscope of magic and wonder, and its fantasy has enchanted readers for over thirty-years. It’s also a very tricky story to adapt. The delightful animated film in 1989 did the story justice, however giving it the theatrical live-action treatment is an entirely different story.
If ever there were a filmmaker to adapt it brilliantly, it’s Steven Spielberg. He has proven time and again that his imagination and ability to connect with children is boundless, and with the exception of some creative licence in the finale, and a less ominous tone, he has delivered a highly spirited adventure that is endearing and true to Dahl’s text.
For those deprived of a Dahlish upbringing, The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) tells the story of a young orphan girl who witnesses a giant creeping around the dark streets of London. She is snatched from her bed and whisked away to Giant Land, where the other ogres have a penchant for eating children. She and the BFG become best friends and devise a scheme to capture the brutes. To elaborate further wouldn’t make a lot of sense, and the story becomes absolutely ridiculous. Were I not familiar with the book I might have deemed Spielberg’s film stupid. Fortunately, for my sake (and I suspect millions of others), the story is well and truly engrained and all disbelief is nicely suspended.
I am a patron of the Church of Spielberg and I haven’t missed a film of his, theatrically, since ET in the early 80s, and so I confess that I come into The BFG with a fair amount of prejudice. That being said, this is not Spielberg’s finest hour – far from it. In fact, this is the first time that I recall ever thinking that Spielberg struggled with technicalities (we will disregard the jungle-swinging shenanigans of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
The film is a marriage of live-action and motion-capture animation, and despite previously mastering both mediums, he has had difficulty augmenting the two in this instance. There are moments when distinct barriers exists between the live-action characters and the animation, which create an immediate disconnect with the viewer, and the digitally created landscapes of Giant Land are distracting at times. Individually the components are stunning, but they fail to gel at various points throughout.
Of course there are also examples of everything blending together perfectly, and when the cohesion happens it is a glorious thing. Factor in two wonderful performances and many of the film’s failings are easily forgiven. Spielberg has always had an affinity with child actors and he has, once again, put his faith in to an inexperienced youngster, with his latest discovery being 12-year old Ruby Barnhill. There is an understated sophistication about her performance and she handles the demands of playing against digital marker-points brilliantly. Spielberg also re-unites with his Bridge Of Spies star, Mark Rylance, which suggests a strong and prosperous collaboration. Rylance is outstanding and commands every moment of screen time. He offers a praise-worthy performance that sees his every expression and mannerism delivered precisely, and his joyfulness leaps off the screen with an infectious sincerity that ought to warm the stoniest of hearts.
Roald Dahl’s work was dark, and his humour was twisted. He strongly felt that children should be challenged and his work offered a means for them to build resilience. However, we’ve sadly come to a point in time where demands for safe and diluted entertainment override the necessity for antiquated methods. It’s because of this that Spielberg’s take on The BFG plays it safe. The sinisterness of the book is lost and has been replaced with a fluffier “kid friendly” tone. It is a shame, but nevertheless, for all of its foibles The BFG proves to be a charming, delightful and infectious fantasy that is a cut above most other family films of late.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10