Through a combination of big screen adaptations and much loved literary adventures, it would be fair to say that the collected works of Roald Dahl had a significant impact on the weaving of the fabric of my childhood. From James & The Giant Peach and The Witches to Matilda and Fantastic Mr. Fox, the iconic author’s creations have had a long and rich history of films being produced that do justice to the original stories. With the exception of a British made for TV movie broadcast on Christmas Day 1989, The BFG, one of Dahl’s most beloved tales, has until now been overlooked by those in power in Hollywood, but this has been rectified in 2016 with none other than Steven Spielberg taking on the task of bringing the big friendly giant to the big screen.
This new take on The BFG is set in a London that is neither entirely period not entirely modern, with the aesthetic immediately transporting the viewer to a quirky and interesting universe. Amidst this strange but pleasing representation of London we meet Sophie (played by Ruby Barnhill), a spunky and special orphan girl who, after staying awake for too long one night, interrupts a giant as he is blowing dreams through sleeping residents windows, and fearing that she will alert her guardians, sweeps her from her bed and carries her home to ‘giant country’. Of course, Sophie’s fears soon subside when it is discovered that this giant (voiced by Mark Rylance), is in fact a big friendly giant, and the well known story commences involving their attempts to stop the rest of the giant population, a much bigger and big meaner gang, from kidnapping and eating children across the country. The first thing to say about The BFG is that it is unmistakably a Spielberg picture. Filled with sentiment and tapping in to childhood themes of loneliness and finding meaning and friendship in one’s life, there is definitely some type of E.T-esque quality within the characterisations, but whereas something like E.T. is Spielberg at his best, this version of The BFG doesn’t quite manage to hit the same home runs.With a long running time that might fail to hold the attention span of younger viewers, the story telling choices that are made completely disregard the majority of the truly scary and dark elements o the original tale that make it so irresistible. For a narrative that revolves around a young girl who is constantly in danger of being eaten alive by evil giants, the picture remains surprisingly twee. The beauty and genius of Roald Dahl was in the gruesome detail that he included, knowing children lapped up that kind of description and story telling, and sadly this version of one his most beloved books feels incredibly sanitised. Though it is unfortunate that the filmmakers decided to take the picture in this direction, something that should be praised is the beauty of the world building, with giant’s country and the BFG’s home caves in particular being a complete visual treat. As somebody who has never really been a fan of live action mixed with animation, I did notice a slight lack of tangibility and weight in the interactions between Sophie and her CGI surroundings, but the children in my screening didn’t seem to notice, and the end of the day, they are the real demographic, not a 26 year old with a bias for the original source material!
Without a doubt the most enjoyable element of the film is the performance of Mark Rylance as the titular BFG. Rylance gives a huge crowd pleasing turn, evoking a character that possesses all of the traits that any Dahl fan would have at the top of their list for the perfect BFG. His kind and charismatic sensibility oozes from his voice, and of course the quite stunning CGI work to render an image very much like his own all combines together to make what I am sure will come to be seen as the definitive portrayal of the character. Ruby Barnhill as Sophie is burdened with a difficult job of acting with green screen and visible creatures for the majority of the film, and though she gives a perfectly fine performance, there is something about her delivery and interaction with the in-film universe that didn’t particularly impress me. Her stock did rise, however, in the final third of the picture when she looked a lot more comfortable acting alongside real human ‘beans’, namely Penelope Wilton as Queen Elizabeth II.
Overall, I would have to say that this new take on The BFG, though mightily impressive in it’s technological feats, feels like it is lacking in some of the core elements that make the original tale so timeless and fun. Though definitely worth a watch for Mark Rylance’s definitive performance alone, the slightly sanitised, twee direction that the film takes feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity to give today’s young cinema goers a classic taste of Roald Dahl at his most creative and most daring. It’s okay to scare kids every now and then, they can take it!