Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jemaine Clement, Penelope Wilton
Released on 22nd July 2016
It’s a generational thing. If you grew up in the 80s, Roald Dahl was on your reading list. If you grew up before then, he wasn’t – although you might have come across his dark view of the world in Tales Of The Unexpected on TV. No matter, because there are plenty of people to answer the inevitable question about the latest version of one his most famous stories, The BFG. How faithful is it to the original? And, from what I’m told, Dahl fans can go and see it without worrying.
It’s not the first time his big friendly giant has been turned into a film. There was a TV animated movie in the late 80s, with David Jason as the giant’s voice. This is a very different proposition, with the weight of Steven Spielberg behind it as well as the latest digital technology. Yet, despite all that, its reception in America when it opened a few weeks ago was lukewarm and it certainly didn’t perform at the box office in the way distributors had hoped. Has one of cinema’s greatest story tellers lost his touch?
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) lives in an orphanage in the 1950s. One night when she can’t sleep she encounters a giant (Mark Rylance), who takes her back to Giant Country. Despite his size, he’s not as intimidating as he looks, but gentle, kind hearted and even timid at times. More worrying is that the other giants, including the graphically named Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), not only refer to him as Runty because he’s actually a lot smaller than them, but also they bully him, wrecking his home and using him as a football. So Ruby comes up with a plan to get rid of them once and for all.
This is a film of two halves. Part one has Ruby ending up in Giant Country, getting to know The BFG and the problems caused by the other giants. There’s other details, such as his job, collecting dreams, which is the source of some of the film’s prettier scenes. And the rather crucial fact that the other giants love eating children and have the uncanny ability to sniff them out. The BFG, on the other hand, doesn’t see children in the same way and eats a vegetarian diet, mainly revolting looking snozzcumber. I’ll come on to his use of language later.
Yet it’s as if this first half really sets us up for part two, which is where Sophie puts her plan to get rid of the other giants into action and it involves no less than Her Majesty The Queen (Penelope Wilton). It’s at this point that the film takes a couple of steps up. What we’ve seen so far is nicely made but essentially standard children’s fairy story stuff, but now we enter the realms of fantasy, with Her Maj meeting The BFG and inviting him to breakfast, served to him in the most imaginative of ways. And it’s this half of the film that sparkles, thanks partly to Wilton as the kind and understanding Queen, who isn’t afraid to pull a few royal strings. So when she was on the phone to a certain Boris to make sure he’d be involved, the audience at the screening I attended wasn’t slow in making the assumption that she was talking to the now Foreign Secretary. She was, of course, talking to Russian Premier Yeltsin, and followed it up by calling Nancy Reagan and asking for Ronnie.
Hang on! Wasn’t this supposed to be set in the 1950s? That’s what we saw at the star, something of cross between the vision of Dickens and Hollywood, but the 50s nonetheless. There’s a picture on the cover of Majesty magazine of the young Queen and a Routemaster bus trundling over Westminster Bridge. The timeline is more than a little confusing and is never explained. Perhaps we have to suspend our disbelief and go with it, just like a child.
The film has some of Spielberg’s usual tropes – the neglected child with no parents, the bullying, the youngster taking the lead in sorting things out. The original book is a good match for its director. Yet the children who were fans of the story and Dahl’s other work were probably about seven when they first met The BFG and this isn’t a film for that age group. It’s not unpleasant or violent, but it is very wordy and demands quite a bit of concentration from a younger audience. Ten upwards is probably more like it.
But it’s sometimes let down by the CGI, of all things, which isn’t as flawless or as convincing as it could be. In close up, the bullying giants look artificial, even though they’re played by actors. But the moment that really clunks is when the Queen’s corgis have partaken of some frobscottle (a fizzy drink much loved by giants and with bubbles that go down rather than up) and can feel the inevitable results coming on. They look straight at the camera and, although it’s still one of the funniest moments in the film, it’s also glaringly obvious that they’re not for real. It nearly spoils the whole scene.
The CGI’d Rylance is eminently loveable as The BFG, complete with his Suffolk accent (there’s a reason for that), his extraordinary vocabulary and his large, twitching ears. Ruby Barnhill make an intelligent Sophie, but never too knowing as to be irritating. And real life Dame Penelope Wilton has just the right regal touch for Her Maj
The BFG isn’t Spielberg at his absolute best, but he’s still pretty good, creating a whole new world for us to learn about. It’s his second film on the trot with the Oscar winning Rylance – who was approached to play this role while making Bridge Of Spies – and they have a third project in the pipeline. This is a collaboration which could run and run and clearly works for both of them.
How would The BFG sum this up? Phizz-wizzing, probably.
The BFG is released in cinemas on Friday, 22 July and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 21 July, which includes the film’s London press conference with Steven Spielberg and Mark Rylance.