A still from ‘The BFG’
A still from ‘The BFG’

Film review: The BFG

Spielberg and Rylance team up again for a winsome adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic

Having pondered over the nature of justice, patriotism and humanity in his last two films, Steven Spielberg was likely feeling the pull of fantasy, a call he’s never ignored for very long. His new film is an adaptation of The BFG, Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, and the careful negotiations of Lincoln and Bridge Of Spies have been replaced by giants, dream-catching and fart jokes (albeit reserved British fart jokes). Yet, to view this film simply as Spielberg stretching his legs before getting down to more serious projects would be to ignore his evident affection for the source material, and the very Spielbergian stamp he puts on it.

When Wes Anderson adapted Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, it was surprising how well it turned out, for there seemed to be little in common between his artistic sensibility and Dahl’s. Spielberg and Dahl are a more natural fit, two consummate storytellers with a fondness for adventure stories and a tendency to put children at the centre of their narratives. Alongside such plucky Dahl child protagonists as Charlie, Matilda and James, one could place the Spielberg triumvirate of Elliott, Jim and David. The film-maker might also have responded to the missing, often dead, parents in Dahl’s books, given that his own filmography is studded with absent and difficult fathers.

Published in 1982, The BFG told the story of Sophie, who is abducted by a giant from the London orphanage she lives in. Luckily for her, this particular giant doesn’t eat human beings like his compatriots. He’s a gentle soul—soon assuming the title of Big Friendly Giant, which his young charge shortens to BFG. Sophie and he, lonely souls both, become friends, go dream-catching and eventually hatch a plan to combat the other giants.

The film is faithful to the original text, with Dahl’s unabashedly silly nonsense prose (“That is the scrumdiddlyumptious snozzcumber") and mixture of grotesqueness and grace pretty much intact. It’s a children’s film in the sense that it isn’t psychologically complex and 6- to 12-year-olds will probably be the ones who’ll enjoy it most, but note, if you will, the visual detail that Spielberg and his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski bring to the production. There may not be anything on the level of the bicycle taking flight in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but almost every scene has little tricks of light and perspective that would never occur to more workmanlike directors. And John Williams’ music lifts the heart, as it always does.

Sophie is played by Ruby Barnhill, one of those formidable British child actors whose pronunciation is better than yours will ever be. Mark Rylance is the giant, made up and CGI-enhanced to look like Quentin Blake’s original illustrations, with huge ears and scraggly hair. For someone who has become famous playing characters who have their guard up (Thomas Cromwell in the TV series Wolf Hall; Rudolf Abel in Bridge Of Spies, for which he won an Oscar), Rylance is unexpectedly gentle and warm as the giant who hears the “secret whisperings of the world" and tells Sophie that he didn’t steal her “very much". He’s teaming up with Spielberg again for Ready Player One; theirs is one of the more exciting developing partnerships in Hollywood today.

The BFG released in theatres on Friday.

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