Late author Roald Dahl has been uncommonly lucky when it comes to film adaptations of his work. Mel Stuart (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), Nicolas Roeg (The Witches), Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach), Danny DeVito (Matilda) and Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox) have all managed to make their own entirely unique movie magic out of his widely loved books for children. Steven Spielberg joins their ranks with the release of The BFG, adapted from Dahl’s 1982, Quentin Blake illustrated classic about a Big Friendly Giant who forms an unlikely friendship with a lonely little orphan called Sophie. The BFG is played (with the aid of some motion capture magic and CGI sorcery) by recent Oscar winner and second time Spielberg collaborator Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), while eleven year-old Cheshire native Ruby Barnhill is tremendous as his plucky, pragmatic pal Sophie.
The film opens on an insomniac Sophie skulking around the hallways of her London orphanage late one night during “the witching hour”. She spies something strange lurking in the shadows outside her window, a very large something bearing a peculiar object that resembles an elongated trumpet. Suddenly the colossal creature notices her gaze and an enormous hand reaches into Sophie’s bedroom to scoop her up. Moving with feline agility and grace, the giant stealthily makes his way through the city streets, carrying Sophie in an improvised bedspread knapsack. Once out of sight of the metropolis the giant begins to travel in great, soaring leaps and bounds until he reaches his destination; Giant Country.
In the exceedingly sweet scene that follows an initially terrified Sophie gradually learns that her abductor isn’t a “man-gobblin’ cannybull” as she first assumed, preferring a vegetarian diet of snozzcumbers to “human beans”. “Then what kind of monster are you?”, asks Sophie, understandably confused to discover the giant kidnapped her to protect himself (from humans who would hunt him if they learned of his existence) rather than to eat her for dinner. “You has me wrong”, he responds, and Rylance infuses those four words with such profound gentleness and wounded sincerity that you instantly believe him. Sophie quickly perceives the kindly heart lurking beneath the giant’s imposing exterior and realizes that he is, like her, a lonely soul in need of a best friend.
Spielberg and late adapted screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) wisely relegate pressing plot concerns to the background for most of the second act, focusing instead on the growing bond between their two lead characters. There is a luminously lovely extended sequence where Sophie convinces the BFG to let her accompany him to Dream Country, a beguilingly surreal realm where the giant captures shimmery dreams and nightmares in glass jars so he can deliver them to the sleeping children of Britain. Conflict does eventually resurface in the form of Giant Country’s nine other inhabitants. Led by the Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement, who somehow manages to make the word “frolic” sound menacing), this collection of brutes relentlessly bully the much smaller BFG and have utter contempt for his vegetarian lifestyle.
When the other giants catch Sophie’s scent and begin to hunt her the two friends come up with a scheme to recruit the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) to their cause using a bottled nightmare, and a lot of fun stuff involving the BFG’s attempts to negotiate Buckingham Palace and royal etiquette ensues. The Fleshlumpeater and his crew are ultimately too dim-witted to pose much of a threat once the British military gets involved, and some viewers might find the resulting lack of stakes and urgency in the film’s final act unsatisfying as a result. Others will appreciate Spielberg honoring the melancholy spirit of Dahl’s book, which was more about overcoming loneliness, grief and fear than defeating the mean, man-eating giants.
Given the small-scale of the story The BFG is a little long at 117 minutes, but Steven Spielberg deserves all the credit in the world for his sensitive, skillful translation of Dahl’s novel to the big screen, and for his casting of Mark Rylance as the BFG in particular. The actor’s incredible warmth and lovely, rumbling delivery of Dahl’s malapropism-riddled dialogue make every moment you spend with his character (who cannot be helping it if he says things a little squiggly) a delight.