Director: Steven Spielberg (2016) BBFC cert PG
Prepare to be charmed into submission by the giant heart of this moving and magical family adventure.
Combining the cinematic skill of Steven Spielberg and the resources of Disney, it’s a respectful and delightful adaption of Roald Dahl’s ever popular children’s book (pub. 1982).
A seamless mix of live action, motion capture special effects and beautiful design bring to vivid life the tale of young Sophie who is spirited away to a mysterious world by the BFG, the Big Friendly Giant.
English actress Ruby Barnhill offers an honest, engaging and sweetly unaffected debut, undoubtedly benefitting from Spielberg’s expertise in drawing out the best in his child performers.
Conscientious in her observance of the witching hour, brave and bookish Sophie is snatched from her orphanage after failing to obey the three rules of not staying in bed, going to the window or looking behind the curtain.
Here there are shades of the dark festive feature Gremlins (1984) which was executive produced by Spielberg.
Once in giant country she overcomes her initial fear to establish a deep bond of trust with her new friend. Played with wounded dignity by last year’s best actor Oscar winner Mark Rylance, the BFG has enormous and expressive ears and lives in a fantastical grotto.
He spends his time mangling words, catching dreams and being bullied by a tribe of stupid and even bigger giants. Despite being 50 foot tall cannibals, for all their size there’s sadly not meat on the bones of their characters of Fleshlumpeater and his gang.
These action moments lack the director’s usual invention and feel almost rote by his own high standards. Plus there’s little sense of giant country being more than a field and a hill.
Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall offer reliable support and there’s an entertaining and possibly treasonous turn from Penelope Wilton as Queen Elizabeth II.
With Spielberg having gathered his usual editor, cinematographer and composer, quality glows through this beautifully crafted adventure. Between them Michael Kahn, Janusz Kaminski and John Williams have 10 Oscar wins, 9 of which were for Spielberg films. This may not be their greatest individual or collective work but it’s fiercely, soaringly professional. Rylance of course won his Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies (2015).
The BFG is Dedicated to its late screenwriter Melissa Mathieson who sadly passed away during production. She also wrote Spielberg’s masterpiece E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and it’s not hard to find familiar elements of lonely imaginative children being befriended by strange creatures.
Spielberg is far more interested in exploring the growing relationship between the girl and the giant than the scant story, choosing to focus not on plot but on the way in which the unlikely friends affect an emotional change in each other.
It’s worth pondering whom of Sophie and the BFG really occupies the parenting role. Sophie encourages the BFG to challenge and improve himself. She mothers this boy who describes himself as old as time; a boy who has never grown up.
There are also visual nods to Peter Pan in a beached pirate ship and Tinkerbell-like fireflies. Spielberg’s take on J. M. Barrie’s tale resulted with the lamentable Hook (1991). This is a superior and more faithful adaption and can be seen as an apologia for that noticeable blot on his CV.
Dreams are presented as sparkling sprites which the BFG catches before trapping them as lighting in a bottle and firing them into the minds of the sleeping public. His cave is a magical dream factory.
This is the BFG as an avatar for Spielberg, his most personal and visible on screen self. The filmmakers biography resonates with the BFG. A lonely child and victim of bullying who seeks to be left alone to work his magic and make people happy. Plus cinema here is presented as a campaigning cultural force when the BFG is able to access government and influence policy.
In this reading the giants become interfering studio executives. Or possibly film critics.
A one time former prodigy of cinema, the BFG finds Spielberg in the mood of a mischievous and avuncular grandfather. This is his glorious gift to the grandchildren of the world.