Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for Action/Peril, some Scary Moments and brief Rude Humor
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Melissa Mathison
(based on the novel THE BFG by Roald Dahl)
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall & Bill Hader
Though his novels are magnificently imaginative, author Roald Dahl’s film adaptations seem cursed at the box office. This has occurred numerous times over the decades. Even though it found later success through TV airings and is now considered a timeless classic by many, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY originally flopped in the theaters (though its lesser Burtonized remake was a success). The same fate befell the creepy THE WITCHES in 1990 and cult favorite JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in 1996. Not even Steven Spielberg seems immune from the Dahl curse, because his adaptation of THE BFG has recently made headlines for bombing. However, that has nothing to do with the quality of this film itself, because BFG (which stands for Big Friendly Giant, get your mind out of the gutter) is a heartwarming fantasy that’s fun for all ages.
Set in 1980’s London, THE BFG opens with young orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) awake at the witching hour (3 am). Though she’s suspected his presence many times, Sophie has never actually met the “boogeyman” until tonight. This boogeyman turns out to be a big eared, speech impaired giant (Mark Rylance in a motion capture performance) who takes Sophie back to his cave-like home. Unlike other giants in Giant Country, Sophie’s gigantic captor doesn’t eat children. Instead this Big Friendly Giant (or BFG, as Sophie calls him) opts to eat foul-tasting cucumber-like vegetables and catches dreams for sleeping children. Sophie and the BFG become fast friends, but the fearsome brutish giants begin to suspect that BFG is harboring a new pet…and a potential snack for them.
BFG’s biggest (pardon the pun) highlights come from the many scenes between Sophie and the main giant. Mark Rylance (who won Best Supporting Actor for his other recent Spielberg outing) is oddly adorable as the naïve, well-intentioned Big Friendly Giant. Having known in advance that Rylance delivered his performance through motion capture, I distinctly recognized his face on this giant character for the entire running time…even if huge ears, frail hair, and a thin chin were morphed into his CGI looks. You have to wonder how much time Rylance spent on the set though, because a majority of the film seems to have young Ruby Barnhill acting against creatures and environments that aren’t really there. Huge props to this child actress, because she puts in a far better performance than one might expect from a kid acting by themselves. This story almost entirely focuses on the friendship of Sophie and Big Friendly Giant, while supporting characters seem to exist merely for jokes and plot devices.
Weak supporting characters don’t lessen the colorful environments and weird-looking giants that Spielberg brings from the page to the screen. This big-screen BFG is very faithful to the source material, which means that there are magical moments, darker aspects (lines of dialogue referring to the other giants feasting on children), and a timelessly upbeat atmosphere to this fairy tale. That being said, it seems like Spielberg was dialing himself back a bit in THE BFG. With E.T. and his other family films as well as Roald Dahl’s books themselves, there was a sense to treat kids with a level of maturity that was rather unheard of at the time. There were dark, scary threats in these stories (on the page and screen) that made the happy, lighter moments shine even brighter. THE BFG tiptoes around a couple of these more intense areas, with the other giants set up as (literal) big antagonists, but Spielberg seems disinterested in these villains and they seem underused as a result.
Executed with visual flair, charm, and whimsy, THE BFG is a simple and sweet fantasy-adventure that’s bound to entertain kids, captivate grown-ups through impressive imagery, and feels like a throwback to a better time for live-action kid’s entertainment. Although it doesn’t go as far as it could have in certain areas and resorts to fart humor on a couple of occasions (one joke is actually well set up and executed), THE BFG is an all-around good movie. It’s not one of Spielberg’s best films, but it remains an entertaining fantasy that’s likely to please both adults and children.