Many of us grew up with the literary genius of Roald Dahl. In the decades since his indelible children’s books were written, many of them have been made into feature films. Some of these adaptations are brilliant (like the original Willy Wonky & the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox) and some are decidedly not (I’m looking at you, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), but they all have a certain special something. Steven Spielberg‘s long-awaited live-action adaptation of The BFG captures that special something, but it lacks a little something else that makes it a giant among films.
In all his years working in Hollywood, The BFG marks the first time Spielberg has made a movie under the Walt Disney Pictures banner. Astonishing to think about, but not when you realize that his last family film was Hook, which has its cult of fans but is actually a deeply flawed movie. (You could also include The Adventures of Tintin in that category, but I wouldn’t.) Regardless, Spielberg had a long journey to get this Dahl novel to the screen, and it was the final project of the great screenwriter Melissa Mathison who came out of retirement to make it happen prior to her untimely death. It’s certainly a labor of love, and it feels like it.
Newcomer Ruby Barnhill stars in the film as Sophie, a young orphan girl living in the Midlands of England. She has insomnia and doesn’t particularly enjoy living in the orphanage. Late one night, she spots something moving around the streets, and it spots her too. It’s a giant (Mark Rylance) that abducts her from her window and takes her back with him to Giantland, where she thinks he’s going to eat her. Luckily, this giant is a smart and kind one, named by the last human he met as the Big Friendly Giant. He spends his days and nights collecting dreams and keeping them in jars.
Now, the BFG isn’t the only giant in Giantland, obviously; in fact, all the other giants are much, much larger than the BFG. They include the likes of the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and the Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) and they eat only “human beans” (one of a few dozen examples of “Gobblefunk,” the half-English language of the giants created by Dahl in the novel). In order to stop the bigger giants from kidnapping and eating children, Sophie and the BFG look for the assistance of the Queen of England herself (Penelope Wilton), whose aids (Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall) also lend a hand.
The imagination and design aspects of the movie are lovely. The BFG’s home specifically is the stuff dreams are made of, with a massive treehouse, a sailing ship in which he sleeps, and pulley systems everywhere. Also impressive are the design and performance capture techniques used on the giants, which look particularly lifelike and still allow for the actors’ performance to shine through. Rylance has a warmth and realness to the character that is exactly what readers of the book will want, and his relationship to Sophie is clear and palpable. Barnhill is a brilliant young actress who really grounds the picture and never feels too much like she’s out of place amid either the giants or the Royal stuff later on.
The problem comes in the connective tissue of the story. We get almost nothing of Sophie’s pre-Giant life, other than just that she doesn’t like it, and her friendship with the BFG feels like it develops in a matter of hours. Things just seem to happen because that’s what the story and the script say they need to. There’s very little peril or even conflict involved, and while it’s not wholly necessary to have drama for the sake of drama, it makes the nearly-two-hour endeavor seem thin and sparse. I enjoyed everything I was watching but it didn’t seem to stem from anything in the narrative. I feel like people who are unfamiliar with the book will be confused or uninterested in following the story.
There is certainly much to applaud about The BFG and if you grew up reading the book, you’ll find your nostalgia-centers of your brain having a great time. It’s good for kids and has a good message about friendship and self-confidence. But it’s far from the best in either Spielberg or Disney’s long, illustrious catalogs.