Film review: The BFG

David Gritten / 21 July 2016

Roald Dahl's classic tale is brought to life by Steven Spielberg in a a lovingly made, good-hearted film, says David Gritten.

Let’s see now – a Steven Spielberg movie about a child who feels isolated in the world, but comes to find refuge and happiness through dealings with a supernatural being. It sounds like the template for Spielberg’s glorious E.T.. But while that particular masterpiece represents a pinnacle well worth trying to emulate, The BFG – based on the classic children’s book by Roald Dahl – is a film of a different order.

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It’s much more reliant on technology, for one thing, and its brilliant animation transforms the face and body of its lead actor Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant of the title.  Happily, it’s his voice that remains intact, and what a voice it is – calm, lilting, tinged with a West Country burr and sometimes tremulous with emotion. His BFG is a strange, contorted creation, but by story’s end he feels as human as anyone else on screen.

Fortunately, Rylance doesn’t have to carry the film on his admittedly broad shoulders. A splendid young English actress named Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie, an orphan girl who the BFG plucks from her dormitory one night and whisks her (and her bed) off to Giant Country.

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We already know Sophie is a feisty character; earlier she has faced down a gaggle of troublesome street drunks with the words: “Don’t Little Missie me!” Her forthright common sense sustains the plot; Sophie is incapable of letting the BFG’s opinions and actions pass without critical comment.  

One of the great delights of Dahl’s work is his inventive way with the BFG’s language, and Spielberg and his screenwriter (the late Melissa Mathison, who also scripted E.T.) know enough to leave it intact – muddled, ungrammatical, but tongue-twistingly inventive: “human beans,” “de-lumptious,” – and ‘whizz-popping’ (it means breaking wind).

The BFG turns out to be a notably benign member of the giant community; for one thing, he is the only vegetarian among his peers. (So, for instance, he doesn’t eat children.) He also has a uniquely kind streak; he captures multi-coloured dreams, which he finds buzzing through the air by a lake, and then blows them through children’s windows.

Between them, Sophie and the BFG keep the nastier giants at bay – and then, just as one wonders if the plot is starting to sag, it picks up again with a third act featuring the Queen (played with effortless grace by Penelope Wilton) and her courtiers (one of them David Walliams, discreetly stealing every scene he’s in.) The royal theme in this last act feels incongruous, as if it belonged to a slicker, more knowing story. But Mathison has been faithful to Dahl’s work; it’s all there. (It also provides the bonus of hearing Rylance tell the Queen: “Your magister, I is your humbug servant.”)

While it may not go down history as an all-time classic, as E.T. did, The BFG is a lovingly made, good-hearted film, one that does not allow its technological wizardry to obstruct its simple main theme – that children, like the rest of us, need dreams to believe in.

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