Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Roald Dahl had a singular gift for capturing children’s imaginations. In novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach he demonstrated an uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of a child. While adults tend to have their feet grounded in reality, children are able to accept the impossible in stride, something that Dahl fully embraced. His stories were creative, silly and relatable and they dealt with the fantastic and the bizarre in a very matter-of-fact way. Sometimes they could be dark (I remember this one passage in The BFG that described what all the different children of the world tasted like) but the baddies always got their just deserts in the end and there was always a moral for kids to take away. There are few films that can match the childlike wonder of Dahl’s work, but E.T. is unquestionably one of them. I cannot think of a more suitable team to bring one of Dahl’s stories to life than Spielberg and Mathison.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) lives in a London orphanage where she often reads into the late hours of the night when everyone else is asleep. One night at the “witching hour” she spots an elderly giant lurking in the shadows outside of her window. The giant snatches her from her bed and carries her all the way to Giant Country. There the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) explains that she must remain in his home forever so that she may never reveal the existence of giants to the world. The other giants are all enormous, repulsive bullies with names like Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) who spend their nights stealing children and eating them. The BFG meanwhile spends his days capturing dreams which he then casts into children’s minds as they sleep. As Sophie becomes friends with the BFG, she determines that something needs to be done about the rest of the giants and enlists the BFG to help her.
The plot, much like in E.T., is very simple and minimal, allowing for more time to focus on the interactions between Sophie and the BFG. This movie is perfectly content with putting the story on hold so that a moment may be allowed to play out. Even when the plot does move forward in the third act with Sophie and the BFG appealing to the Queen of England, the film still finds time for an amusing scene the morning after where the disparity between the giant and the humans is played on for comic effect. The film also pauses to focus on moments of enchantment, as when the BFG takes Sophie to the pool where he collects his dreams. It is a tremendous scene that allows the viewer to get lost in the magic for a moment. Other times the film simply lets Sophie and the BFG talk to each other, allowing us to enjoy the evolution of a fascinating and unlikely friendship.
Despite the vast differences between them, Sophie and the BFG are remarkably similar in a number of crucial ways. They are both outsiders, Sophie being an orphan and the BFG being the runt of the giants. Both are childish in certain ways and adult in others, meaning they must both be responsible for each other. Sophie is mature for her age but is still helpless against the giants, therefore it is the BFG’s responsibility to protect her. The BFG however is rather scatter-brained and timid, making it Sophie’s responsibility to mother him. Barnhill makes her splendid debut as the clever and witty Sophie while Rylance is simply magical as the odd and affectionate giant. In a motion-capture performance that rivals even those of Andy Serkis, Rylance’s delivery of the BFG’s garbled lines and realisation of his peculiar movements amount to an utterly charming character. The friendship the two of them form is the heart of this movie and watching their interactions was a delight.
The BFG is a movie about dreams and stories, family and childhood, and having courage in the face of adversity. It is above all a film about friendship. It is a tale of kindness, valour and goodness winning against bullying, malice and cruelty. The movie is patient and clever enough that it doesn’t need to constantly keep the story moving forward for fear of losing the children’s attention. The magical world it depicts and the enjoyable characters it portrays are both fascinating enough to keep the viewer engaged, even in the moments where there doesn’t seem to be much happening. The film doesn’t have the emotional punch of E.T. but it has the creativity, humour and wonder. The BFG is an endearing, kind-hearted movie that I’d like to think Mr. Dahl would’ve been proud of. I think it is a worthy fulfilment of the book I enjoyed so fondly as a child and I hope it is one that will resonate with children today.