Steven Spielberg’s The BFG is a technically impressive adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel – one with whimsy and heart to spare.
The BFG takes place in England in the 1980s; there, late one night, young orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is shocked to encounter a giant (Mark Rylance) – one who then proceeds to take Sophie with him to his home in Giant Country, lest she tell other people about his existence. Fortunately, it turns out that the giant is really a gentle spirit who, unlike other (and bigger) giants, eats vegetables rather than children; spends his nights delivering dreams to people around the world; and goes by the name of Big Friendly Giant or BFG for short. Sophie and the BFG are thus quick to become friends, as the latter introduces his new human “bean” companion to the secret wonders of his world – and ours.
However, Sophie’s presence soon attracts unwanted attention from other giants – led by the bullying Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) – who are not only far larger than the BFG, but also invade the human world every night in order to snack on children. With help from the BFG, Sophie thus puts a plan in motion that, should it work, will rid the world of those blood-thirsty giants once and for all.
Adapted from the beloved 1982 children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, The BFG reunites director Steven Spielberg with his E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who sadly passed away not longer after BFG wrapped production) for another fantasy adventure about the unexpected friendship between a child and a being not from our world. Although The BFG doesn’t scale the same heights as Spielberg’s best family-friendly offerings in the past, the movie is still a perfectly solid bit of whimsical entertainment – reminding the world yet again that Spielberg remains one of the best purely cinematic storytellers currently active.
Although Dahl’s BFG source material is fully of imaginative creatures and locations that lend themselves to a film adaptation (see also the 1989 animated version of Dahl’s story), it’s not the type of plot-driven novel that naturally lends itself to a movie with a conventional three-act structure. Mathison’s adapted script succeeds in making enough tweaks to Dahl’s original narrative to give it more forward-momentum, without being too unfaithful to the text at the same time. Similarly, the film version of The BFG has a more clearly-defined thematic through-line than Dahl’s source novel – providing kids with a useful anti-bullying message and lessons about the importance of learning to live in harmony with others (while, on a deeper subtextual level, inviting comparisons between the BFG and storytellers such as Mathison and Spielberg). Mathison’s screenplay does rely on heavy-handed plot beats and removes some of the darker material in Dahl’s book in order to make The BFG a more wholesome story – but the final result is a worthwhile narrative, all the same.
The BFG himself, as played via performance-capture by Mark Rylance, is not only the highlight of the film – he’s the most impressive humanoid motion-capture character ever created. Rylance follows his Oscar-winning turn in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies by delivering another richly-drawn performance; though one that is worlds apart from his previous role in a Spielberg film, in terms of personality and mannerisms. BFG’s “giant talk” and tendency to speak in malapropisms are handled with ease by Rylance, while his facial expressions and physical movements provide the digitally-rendered giant with a beating heart that he would’ve lacked had he been solely a CGI creation. The bond that forms between The BFG and Sophie is all the more convincing thanks to newcomer Ruby Barnhill – who, as the smart and courageous, yet disciplined, young protagonist of the movie, is instrumental in not only selling Sophie and BFG’s relationship, but also making the film’s CGI environments and mo-cap characters all the more believable with her reactions.
On a related note: Spielberg and his longtime director of photography Janusz Kamiński improve on their work from the all-CGI Adventures of Tintin with The BFG – seamlessly integrating real-life actors and practical sets/props into a movie that is otherwise visually-structured in the same mo-cap filmmaking style as Tintin. 3D is recommended for The BFG, as the movie offers a cutting-edge immersive viewing experience – effectively using techniques such as forced perspective to make the world of Giant Country seem all the more massive and gorgeous to behold, from the perspective of the much smaller Sophie (who, more often than not, blends in nicely with her surroundings). Attention to detail and the photo-realistic texture of the movie’s various fantastical creatures and locations (especially the BFG’s home) make it all the easier for viewers to feel truly immersed in its world. Of course, these effects can be enjoyed just as much in 2D – so if you prefer the latter screening format, you won’t lose anything that significant by checking out a non-2D showing instead (the key thing is to watch The BFG for the first time in a theater).
The BFG does suffer from pacing issues during its third act, as the film introduces several new characters into the mix for a series of comedic sequences that are a bit too drawn-out (and self-indulgent), at the expense of the greater plot. The actual conflict in the film is pretty straight-forward too, as Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) is the only member of the villainous giants with a fully-formed personality – and though he’s a memorable brute, he’s also a flat villain. Nevertheless, The BFG‘s supporting cast members – including, Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) and Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3) – do play their roles well; and closer to the end, the movie regains the forward momentum of its first two-thirds.
Steven Spielberg’s The BFG is a technically impressive adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel – one with whimsy and heart to spare. It’s not Spielberg’s most sophisticated family-friendly offering (nor as poignant as it could have been), but it’s a fine addition to the director’s larger filmography – as well as another worthwhile fairy tale film released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner. Moviegoers who grew up loving Dahl’s source material should find enough to enjoy about the Spielberg version to justify giving it a watch in theaters – and, in turn, feel comfortable using the movie to introduce the tale of Sophie’s adventures with the Big Friendly Giant to a younger generation.
The BFG is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 117 minutes long and is Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor.
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