VOD film review: The BFG (2016)
Ivan Radford | On 26, Nov 2016
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement
Roald Dahl: national treasure, beloved author and one seriously twisted man. Children are basically bumped off one-by-one in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Witches has some of the most disturbing body horror ever fed to young minds. And Matilda, that feel-good fable of potential, brains and creativity, is the story of a headteacher who throws kids out of school. With her hands. Over the fence.
The BFG is as dark and scary as you’d expect for a story named after a towering giant; our central tall person, who finds himself the unwitting captor of tiny orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), may be friendly, but the other giants are nasty, mean, smelly monsters. Monsters who eat children.
An American adaptation of the material by Spielberg, then, might sound like a mismatch, but while the director gave us ET and Hook, he also gave us AI and War of the Worlds; he’s a filmmaker with a dark streak as wide as Roald Dahl’s, a storyteller with that same balance of sweetness and shade. And so he introduces us to a London where the everyday already has a twinkle of a fairytale. Shooting everything from behind banisters and through windows, he crafts a firmly three-dimensional world where the background is firmly in the foreground; each frame has the magical feel of a pop-up picture book that makes you want to turn the page.
By the time we, and Sophie, are snatched up by The BFG, we’ve been fully eased into that starlit limbo, so the fantastical sights that follow feel even more real than the real world; where CGI movies can often lack any sense of weight, this has weight by the helicopter-load.
There’s a tangible, tactile sense to the visuals, from the Swiss Family Robinson-esque contraptions whirling around The BFG’s home right down to the ethereal, colourful dreams that the giant traps and secretly blows into human brains at night, which whizz and pop through the air. One sequence that sees the duo step into the upside-down world of a dream-studded tree is an eye-popping marvel to behold, daring you to blink and watch the whole thing vanish in a fleeting wisp. That charming spectacle is contrasted superbly with the gruesome giants – boasting wonderful names, such as Bloodbottler, Meatdripper and Fleshlumpeater (voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) – who manage the tricky task of being occasionally funny yet always menacing, not to mention completely believable.
The film’s real success, though, lies in its emotional weight. Ruby Barnhill is perfect as Sophie, the kind of forthright, intelligent heroine that you expect from the author. Her terror, as she hides amid the pulp of a snozzcumber, is palpable, while her amazement at The BFG’s heartfelt work rivals his concern for her safety. Mark Rylance, meanwhile, delivers a performance beyond superlatives as BFG, his endlessly expressive face so earnest and sincere that you quickly forget he’s a motion-capture figure – a rare feat in modern cinema, no matter how advanced the technology has become. Underplaying the whole thing, he rolls Dahl’s squiffly vocabulary around in his mouth with infectious enjoyment, spitting out words like “splendiferous” in a way that sounds entirely natural.
Together, they have the kind of chemistry that warms your feet from across the room, and much of the joy of Spielberg’s epic adventure is simply seeing them interact; a moment where he gently reads Dickens to her, while she falls asleep, each one offering the other the family they never had, will reduce you to tears. Lovingly and respectfully transformed into a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison (who wrote ET), the result is a huge tale that focuses on small things – there are guns, choppers, chases and more, but the biggest set piece, really, is the setting of a table for The BFG to eat a gargantuan breakfast at Buckingham Palace (staffed by Rafe Spall’s amusing footman, Penelope Wilton’s magnificent Queen and Rebecca Hall’s curious onlooker). The fart jokes that ensure are a treat for all ages.
There is only one major departure from the book, as the script introduces a backstory for our giant – but it’s that very change that elevates The BFG from a sparkling piece of cinema to a sweeping childhood classic. It gives Rylance’s crinkly colossus a tragic note that tugs at your innards in the most uncynical of ways. “Why did you take me?” Sophie asks at one point. “Because I hears your lonely heart,” he replies, “in all the secret whisperings of the world.” The BFG completely captures the wide-eyed wonder of childhood in its stride, but underneath its warped imagination and sinister, Dahlian edge lies something even darker: the melancholy of loneliness, something that The BFG understands as well as she does. What a brilliant, galumphing hug of a film this is.