In 2016, the release of a new Steven Spielberg movie is still an event, and he’s only becoming more prolific as time goes on. But for whatever reason THE BFG hasn’t been taken to people’s heart. It’s an admittedly odd story, the kind of story that can only work if you ignore any potentially creepy implications. Sadly nothing seems innocent anymore. Except for fart-propelled corgis, that’s pretty innocent.
Ten year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) escapes her dreary life in a London orphanage when she glimpses a giant walking the streets. Fearful of being discovered by more aggressive “human beans” the kind-hearted BFG (Mark Rylance) brings Sophie back home with him and the pair form a fast friendship. Unfortunately, the BFG is not the only inhabitant of Giant Country, and his kin are much bigger, meaner and less vegetarian…
This is a faithful enough adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story, but the pacing and tone of the thing is really weird and not particularly in-keeping with the material. Rather than Dahl’s frivolous and small-scale tale of friendship with hints of darkness you have a cheerfully melancholy, wannabe fantasy epic with stop-start slapstick set pieces. It’s not an entirely unenjoyable hodge-podge, but it’s a pretty unsatisfying one.
I wish more was done with the concept of the BFG’s dream-catching. The scenes we have are colourfully imaginative, the labeled jars categorising the trapped dreams are nice throwaway gags (many, of course, involving being unexpectedly naked). We really only get two scenes of the BFG imparting dreams on others, and only one of these has any real visual flair. Maybe a bit more of this and a bit less Giants faffing about it would have worked in the film’s favour.
Scale is used in some really interesting ways. Most of the action is from Sophie’s perspective and at her level, and Barnhill navigates giant sets lit and photographed ingeniously by Janusz Kaminski. The dream-catching sequence is lovely, but the best set piece in the film sees the less friendly giants tearing the BFG’s house apart looking for his new human bean friend as she hides between his bric-a-brac.
Both leads are excellent and make their characters playful, grounded and heartfelt, but I don’t know whether their relationship entirely works. Barnhill is from the classic Spielberg child mould – big, expressive eyes, attitude in abundance and a killer disbelieving face. Rylance is a very sad Big Friendly Giant, but I wouldn’t say they quite manage to pluck heartstrings like Elliot and ET, Albert and Joey, or even Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. It’s an issue when your main characters don’t ask each other’s names until 40 minutes into your film, and while their relationship is always appealing and watchable, it’s rarely compelling. The BFG still clearly misses his previous companion too much, and it is when he is laying bare his grief for his lost boy with his shrine-like bedroom in a nook in his lair that your feel for him far more than you do for his affection for Sophie.
The bad Giants lead by Jermaine Clement’s thuggish Fleshlumpeater just aren’t scary enough. They look more like concept art rejects from BRAVE than the pale nightmares of the David Jason animated film. Those monsters frightened me witless when I was small, but this gang of squabbling bullies don’t seem to be much of a threat to anybody beyond the BFG, and even then they just push him around in elaborate schoolyard games.
Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG has the right spirit for a Roald Dahl story, boasts a pair of strong lead performances and has memorable flights of fancy. Tone and storytelling is where it tends to fall short, not being funny or scary enough and distinctly lacking in peril. Kids might struggle to find enough excitement to keep them glued to the screen and adults will likely want more heart and soul. Sadly, it’s a near-miss. SSP