A marvellously melancholic motion-capture performance by Mark Rylance and vibrant support from rising star Ruby Barnhill provide the beating heart of this extremely likable adaptation of Roald Dahl’s family favourite, which also owes a debt to the illustrations of Quentin Blake.
Brimful of the anarchic magic so sorely missing from Spielberg’s ill-fated Peter Pan project, Hook, The BFG sees the director rediscovering his inner child in winning fashion. Like the eponymous figure, the result may be a little lumbering at times, but it is also ultimately irresistible.
We open in a Mary Poppins-style version of London where past and present seem to intermingle. From vistas of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament we move through Dickensian cobbled streets to the orphanage where young Sophie (Barnhill) peers like a giant into the tiny rooms of a doll’s house. It’s the witching hour, and Spielbergian shafts of dusty moonlight stream through the room (the “silver blade” of Dahl’s source) whence Sophie herself will soon be taken, to Giant Country, where beasts with names like Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater are hungry for “human beans”.
But Sophie is safe with “the BFG” (Bridge of Spies star Rylance’s Big Friendly Giant), a loner with sad eyes and expressive ears who catches and bottles dreams, but who is plagued by a guilty secret. Bullied by his larger and altogether more aggressive brethren, this towering yet timid creature needs to stand up for himself, a lesson he may yet learn from his tiny companion. In return, he will teach her to hear “all the secret whisperings of the world” and introduce her to his land of dreams, a magical place with Avatar-like glowing trees and Northern Lights skies.
Based on a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, who most famously wrote ET, The BFG has something of the enchanted tone of Spielberg’s extraterrestrial gem, along with a sly visual nod to the finger-touch image that became its iconic emblem. There’s a touch of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf too in John Williams’s storytelling score, helping to delineate the unruly lines of the narrative, shepherding the audience through emotional peaks and troughs like dancers in a ballet.
As per Dahl’s novel, the BFG’s speech patterns are “a little squiggly”, with his talk of “hippodumplings” and “tellytelly bunkum boxes” pitched somewhere between the delicious gobbledegook of Stanley Unwin and the Nadsat futurespeak of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. It’s all music to Rylance’s ears and he makes the dialogue sing, a gentle burr sanding the sharp edges off the contrary consonants, lending a lyrical lilt to the giant’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings.
Barnhill embodies a crucial combination of innocence and strength; she has the same self-possessed quality of amazement and joy that Mara Wilson brought to Danny DeVito’s Matilda, still my favourite screen adaptation of Dahl’s children’s books (although I remain fond of Nic Roeg’s The Witches, and indeed of Brian Cosgrove’s celebrated 1989 animation of The BFG). At large in the BFG’s lair, Sophie discovers an Aladdin’s cave of wonders; a Gilliamesque world of Heath Robinson pulleys and dreams in labelled jars that shine like Tinkerbell, throwing orange, green, purple and blue light around the room.
Vehicular rollerskating and helicopter attacks provide some swoopy action sequences, while a set piece at Buckingham Palace is a pure delight, with the BFG feasting on a scrumdiddlyumptious breakfast served up on a giant table constructed from grandfather clocks and grand pianos. It’s here that the BFG introduces the Queen (a magnificent Penelope Wilton) to the majesty of “whizzpopping”, the bottom-burping “sign of true happiness” brought on by the downward-spiralling bubbles of his favourite fizzy drink, “frobscottle”. I haven’t laughed at fart jokes so much since Blazing Saddles.
Such physical bawdiness is indicative of The BFG’s cinematic corporeality. It’s significant that two of the most adventurous screen adaptations of Dahl’s work, Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, both used stop-motion animation to capture the tactile worlds the author conjured with such vigour in his books. The danger with computer graphics, as Spielberg learned in The Adventures of Tintin, is that they can create layers of shiny artifice that, while dazzling, lack heft, both physical and emotional. Yet for all its digital wizardry, The BFG remains a flesh-and-blood film, a story of two living, breathing misfits in whose emotional bonds we can invest, believe and rejoice. Bravo!
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