Screenplay by Melissa Mathison, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, with Christopher Abbott as story editor
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader, Jermaine Clement, Rafe Spall, Matt Frewer and more
Grade: Three and a half stars
Childhood can be magical.
Steven Spielberg’s latest, a live-action film version of the Roald Dahl classic “The BFG,” bottles that magic and puts it onscreen. The movie is a child’s fantasy in its purest form – whimsical, visually gorgeous, and possessed of the most well set-up fart joke I’ve ever seen – and will undoubtedly delight any under-12's or Roald Dahl fans in the theater.
Adult audience members may wish for a movie that doesn’t cling quite so firmly to a child-only perspective, but even that is faithful to the original story.
For those not familiar with the book, “The BFG” starts with a young orphan girl who gets spirited away by a nice giant who doesn’t share the other giants’ habit of eating humans. Still, she’s constantly at risk of being eaten by the bad giants, at least until she realizes that she and the Big Friendly Giant need to recruit the Queen of England to help out.
That last sentence tells you a lot about the sensibility of the film, which is charming but feels very much like a story told by a 10-year-old. That’s the age where someone would think “Let’s ask the queen for help” when trying to solve a problem, seeing her as a sort of supreme mother figure for the country and therefore possessed of the parental invincibility that young children give their parents. Also, the only two groups of people who love farting quite as much as “The BFG” does are small children and teenage boys (I will say, though, that the movie is the first in decades to actually make me laugh at the set up for a fart joke. The joke itself was no more entertaining than any other fart joke I've seen, but the journey there was lingered over so lovingly that I giggled despite myself).
The visuals are absolutely beautiful, particularly a sequence where our young hero, Sophie, and the BFG go out hunting dreams. The BFG himself threatens to tip over into Uncanny Valley territory a time or two (aka that vaguely uncomfortable feeling you get watching CGI Tom Hanks move his face in the movie version of "The Polar Express"), but mostly the exaggerated, expressive face is charming and just a little bit heartbreaking. Mark Rylance is amazing in the role, giving the character a depth and empathy that the script doesn’t quite have room to build on its own.
Ruby Barnhill is also good as Sophie, who is mouthier than the usual child protagonist (but not more so than plenty of actual children I’ve run into). I doubt I’d want to babysit her, but she’s a lovely audience stand-in and can be both fragile and spunky when the situation demands.
The movie actually follows the book pretty closely, though like with previous screen adaptations of the story the ending has been changed somewhat. There’s a faint melancholy tone to this one that may speak to parents, a bittersweet tinge that feels like a comment on growing up, but I’m not sure the kids will notice that part.
Because in the end, this is very much a story for the kids in the audience (and possibly the kid inside all of us). And those kids may not know how the world works, yet, but they definitely believe in giants.