The BFG is a movie about trust, bravery and childhood wonderment. It’s a feel-good film that taps into the mindset of a child’s imagination and brings both the exciting and the scary parts of the unknown to life. It’s an extremely faithful adaptation of its classic source material, taking care in bringing Roald Dahl’s novel to life. That being said, Steven Spielberg’s film is not quite as dark as originally written by Dahl. He keeps the whimsy intact but focuses less on the dark and twisted violence hidden underneath the story’s quirkiness. It doesn’t detract from the overall story, but it does feel like a toned down film compared to other Dahl adaptations like Matilda, James and the Giant Peach and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (tunnel scene anyone?). While not one of Spielberg’s greatest achievements to date, even the non-masterpiece Spielberg films are still a ton of fun, and this one is no exception.
The BFG tells the story of Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a stubborn yet brave orphan girl living a tiresome life at an English orphanage. One night, she gets out of bed and sees something that she was not meant to see: a giant. Twenty-four feet tall and towering over her small stature, the giant snatches her out of bed and takes her with him to Giant Country in fear that she might tell the world of his existence. Sophie soon comes to befriend the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG (sorry Doom fans), who is revealed to be a gentle and kind being, one with a very wonky way of saying things and a hobby of collecting and crafting dreams. However, Sophie comes to learn about the other giants who live in the land – hideous beings with rather gruesome names to match their appearances. They eat people (human beans) as we would eat French Fries and are twice the size of the BFG himself. Now Sophie and the BFG must put an end to the giant’s nefarious ways, all the while learning to trust one another as newfound friends.
Seeing the trailer for this movie last year made my childhood bookworm gleefully ecstatic. My favorite director heading a movie based on of a book written by one of my favorite writers as a child: How could this go wrong? Granted, in retrospect, it does seem a bit strange for Steven Spielberg of all people to direct a Roald Dahl adaptation, as their artistic visions are very different from one another. Spielberg has always had a knack for making movies that aim at every person’s inner child, with such films as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind being very much centered around what it means to be a child or reclaiming a childhood long forgotten. On one hand, this does match up with Dahl’s straightforward good and evil writing style, where it is quite unlikely you will find a morally ambiguous character.
However, Dahl has always had something of a twisted mindset, hiding ambiguous undertones beneath rather goofy and nonsensical Dr. Seuss-esque wording. And, while Spielberg has had his share of dark films (i.e. Schindler’s List, Minority Report, Munich), he definitely enjoys making family films that lean more toward whimsy than darkness. As a result, I was surprised at how much the changes in the movie worked, leaving out some of the gruesomeness from the book and replacing it with enough heartfelt storytelling to remind us why Spielberg is one of best. At the most, they sure made the snozzcumbers look as gruesome as we imagined them to be in our minds.
A lot of what makes this movie work is just how impressively the filmmakers and visual technicians were able to bring the world of this novel to life, especially in the two lead roles. There was no doubt that Mark Rylance would deliver a strong performance, teaming up with Spielberg once again following his Academy-Award winning performance in last year’s Bridge of Spies. His version of the BFG is as a warm and caring individual hidden from the world of humans, who is mistreated by his fellow giants, who see him as the disgraceful “runt” of the pack. This performance is elevated by the use of motion capture and digital effects, which manage to seamlessly bring this character and his surroundings to life. He is as just as unbelievable as the dreams that he collects, yet feels as real as Sophie herself. Ruby Barnhill really surprised me in this movie, never feeling as if she is talking to a floating head on a green screen and always managing to capture the immersion of what is being shown. True, it does feel somewhat quick in how easily she comes to befriend her kidnapper but it feels more along the lines of the two finding a bit of themselves in each other rather than some form of friendship born of the Stockholm Syndrome. After all, if anyone can make the relationship between a young girl and an older giant not feel creepy, it’s Steven Spielberg.
While this movie is extremely faithful to the novel, only making slight alterations in order to create a smoother transition to film, this does lead to the second half of the movie feeling sort of rushed in its execution. That’s not to say that the second half is bad, but it lacks the same feeling of wonder and awe that the first half managed to excel at conveying. This is partially due to the fact that, while the events of the movie are fun to watch, there isn’t much of a narrative advancing the story until the final third. We see Sophie and the BFG interact with one another and explore Giant Country, as well as introduce the other nine giants as antagonists, but it does feel like they are just buying time rather than telling a compelling story, something that any moviegoer knows a director like Spielberg can pull off. If you are someone like me, who read the book many times as a child, you’ll probably have a better respect for the film story compared to the casual moviegoer. It is by no means poor storytelling, and frankly I’m not entirely sure how they could have expanded upon the overall narrative, but it still could have used a bit more meat on the bones
Verdict: 3 out of 5
The BFG might not have the most compelling story to drive it forward, but there is still a lot for both kids and adults to love and re-watch over time. The messages it teaches are obvious but still compelling and the strong performances and visuals really make worth watching just to experience that sense of child-like awe. It’s not going to be in any Steven Spielberg Top 10 list, but like I said: even when a Spielberg film does not match up with the director’s legacy, it is still a great film in its own right.