At first glance, Steven Spielberg adapting The BFG seems like a perfect combination. With its fantastical trappings, focus on a lonely, imaginative child who befriends a misunderstood ‘monster’, Roald Dahl’s classic tale is an uncanny thematic mirror to ET. This dazzling adaptation even reunites the director with Melissa Mathison, who co-wrote that seminal slice of 80s sci-fi.
Alas, some pairings are better left to the imagination as the reality of a Spielberg-helmed BFG only disappoints. This two hander might boast some exceptional visual effects and charming performances from its two leads, but such delights cannot overcome an interminable bore of a story.
The start is spectacular, swooping down into an anachronistic London where 80s-styled drunkards pound Dickensian cobbles as lonely orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) narrates the perils of being out of bed past the Witching Hour. Of course, the mischievous sprog fails to heed her own warning and is swiftly spotted by a cloaked giant who snatches her from beneath the bedcovers and whisks her away to the mythical Giant Country.
The giants’ homeland is a truly wondrous creation, a vivid expanse of verdant, fairy-tale landscapes and wild, roaming dreams which zip across the screen like firecracker fairy lights. Here Sophie’s captor is revealed not to be the child-guzzling monster of folklore but a more kindly sort of giant who spends his days blowing dreams into children’s minds and cowering from his larger, more ferocious kin. Together with his new miniature pal, the BFG (Mark Rylance) hatches a plan to rid the land of these foul creatures once and for all.
It’s not just the magical landscapes that impress; the realisation of the BFG is absolutely exquisite. Big-eared, matted-haired, and gangly-limbed, the performance-capture technology superbly supersizes every tiny detail of Rylance’s expressive performance. In his second collaboration with Spielberg, the veteran stage actor gives yet more reason to be glad it won’t be his last. Rylance nails the movie’s titular hero, selling BFG’s tricky spoonerisms and malapropisms with a suitably daft West Country grumble without ever losing touch with the character’s humane warmth.
Barnhill, too, is a wonderful choice to play Sophie, possessing that virtuous, impudent spirit inherent in all of Dahl’s child heroes. The scenes where Sophie and the BFG bond over their shared sense of alienation and love of imagination are the movie’s most enchanting, which is in no small part down the Barnhill and Rylance’s affecting chemistry.
Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Once Sophie is fully ensconced in giant territory the plot stalls. Sophie and the BFG talk endlessly without really saying anything and scenes seem to drag on longer than a giant’s lifespan without even a hint of conflict. Though vile behemoths like Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) are our notional baddies, Mathison’s decision to omit scenes of the giants actually munching on children reduces them to bumbling buffoons whose bullying of BFG is played comically. This might have been a well-intentioned bid to make the movie friendlier to the tiniest human beans in the audience, but it strips the story of all tension.
Never is this more apparent than in the underwhelming third act. After a typically overwrought sequence in which our heroes try to enlist the services of the Queen – which admittedly leads to an entertainingly slapstick Buckingham Palace breakfast – we return to Giant Country with the full might of Britain’s military in tow, ready to take on Fleshlumpeater’s clan.
While entirely faithful to Dahl’s novel – a fact that would no doubt please the notoriously fussy author – this old-fashioned display of Britain’s imperial might effectively sidelines our heroes and turns the final showdown into a rather weightless affair lacking any genuine stakes.
ET remains so beloved by audiences because it takes us on an emotional journey, inviting us to invest in endearing characters before forcing them through the wringer. The BFG might be made of similar stuff, but it’s far less engaging by comparison, dazzling and delighting in patches but never truly touching your heart.
Runtime: 117 mins; Genre: Fantasy; Released: 22 July 2016;
Director: Steven Spielberg; Writers: Melissa Mathison, Roald Dahl (novel);
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jermaine Clement, Bill Hader