The “G” in his name was obviously a typo.
Hollywood ought to be proud of itself. Its usual propensity for ruining everyone’s beloved childhood memories has yet to seriously torpedo this summer’s movie lineup. First came Finding Dory, a surprisingly solid follow-up to everyone’s favorite tale of helicopter parents getting their comeuppance. And now, The BFG, an entertaining adaptation of Roald Dahl’s hilarious children’s book. In the grand scheme of Steven Spielberg’s body of work, this film isn’t going to leave any Jaws or E.T.-size footprints. Still, it’s well-done, pleasingly whimsical, and enough to justify a trip to the theaters.
On the surface, The BFG ought to be run-of-the-mill children’s fantasy fare. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a young, inquisitive 11-year old girl. She lives a humdrum life in an orphanage in central London and suffers from a particularly nasty case of insomnia. Like, really nasty. Even at 3 A.M., she’s creeping around stairwells and hallways, reading books, and shouting at drunk people in the alleyway. She calls this time of night the “witching hour,” a time where “magical things can happen.” And she’s right – just not in the way she expected. One night, she accidentally catches a glimpse of a…giant…stumbling over a batch of trash cans in the street. She tries to hide and forget she saw anything, but it’s too late. Before she knows it, the giant has snatched her from her bedroom window and whisked her away to a new, bigger world: Giant Country, home of her captor, the BFG (a.k.a. the Big, Friendly Giant, played by CGI-ified Mark Rylance), and his enormous, bullying brothers, led by the disgusting Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement).
The thing that really made Dahl’s original book such fun was the BFG’s peculiar but strangely rhythmic language. The words he invented, with their crazy syllables and spellings, made vivid in sound ideas otherwise mundane in substance. Spielberg has not overlooked this. He makes sure the movie’s BFG gets plenty of airtime to let Dahl’s zanny vocabulary go wild. Even the most seasoned Dahl fan will savor this chance to hear “swatchscollop” and “bopmuggered” spoken aloud. Rylance imbues his character with a wise, knowing air, such that these words, far from making us laugh at their apparent absurdity (well, okay, occasionally they might), leave us appreciative of the hidden complexity in Dahl’s rich, descriptive imagery. We might even be a bit jealous: how come BFG gets the cool version of English?
Around the BFG’s colorful mannerisms, Spielberg on the whole does a good job rendering the fantastical, almost magical atmosphere of Dahl’s story. It’s clearly set in modern-day Britain, but it retains a persistent, disarming fairy-tale vibe. Ordinary buildings become spooky, mysterious crags, tiny caves enchanting portals to other worlds. The sights and sounds, even if they’re CGI-ed, immerse you in the sensory aspects of Sophie’s journey. My personal favorite moment comes when the BFG, in the midst of his journey back to Giant Country, whisks over a line of supposedly “large” trees, which sway over and bend back in perfect synchronization, as if under his command.
The only drawback to this movie comes whenever Spielberg decides to stray from the book’s quirkiness in favor of ordinary drama. Granted, the book does not owe its effect to a spellbinding, complex plot, and a movie needs to give people more than just clever words to keep them attentive for two hours. Yet Spielberg’s attempts to add some tension into the story – the creation of a boy who also befriended the BFG but was eaten by the other giants, to take one example – don’t work too well. You can tell Spielberg is trying to “heroify” Sophie, turning her discovery of the BFG and Giant Country into a life-or-death, valiant struggle against all the daunting odds. Perhaps this tweaking was necessary to give the movie some structure, but it loses a bit of the innocence of the original. When the BFG’s flesh-eating giant brothers start looking like serious menaces to society and not stupid, brawny, ugly bozos, the effect just isn’t the same.
Still, the pluses far outweigh the downs here, particularly towards the end, where the film pulls a majorly irreverent gag on the Queen. This is a children’s book, and Spielberg overall remains true to its zesty juvenile spirit. For older people, the movie also offers a pleasant kickback to younger days, when only our pestilent imaginations shaped the rules and boundaries of our lives. It’s this year’s movie reminder to never get too bogged down in monotonous familiarity. Because even if it means dousing a bottle of flatulence-inducing frobscottle, this is fun you’d be ill-advised to miss out on.
The BFG (2016)
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill
Running Time: 117 minutes
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Melissa Mathison
Based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel of the same name.
Image of BFG surrounded by his giant-er peers found here.