‘The BFG’ Is Bubbling Fantabulous Goodness (Movie Review)

bfg thumbSometimes you have to try and channel Roald Dahl to describe his films. Steven Spielberg certainly seems to be a fan, as he has done all he can to replicate the 1982 novel of the same name. Given both the Beard’s directorial sensibilities and being his first Disney movie there is perhaps almost too light of a touch, but The BFG makes up for this by way of delivering on spectacle without overdoing it. Really, what better way to see a movie about a little girl and her new giant best friend come to life than through the lens of a British comedy with big Hollywood effects?


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A perfectly cast Ruby Barnhill stars as Sophie, an orphan girl who is awake long enough in the night to catch a glimpse of something extraordinary. This would be a 24-foot tall giant in the form of a more gangly and wild-haired Mark Rylance, who sees Sophie spying on him and snatches her up through her window.  The giant then takes Sophie to a fantastical land known as Giant Country. It is here she learns this giant is big and friendly (with the BFG becoming an appropriate nickname), but there are nine other giants with more of an appetite on their minds when it comes to humans.

That last bit sounds pretty violent and Dahl’s original novel does actually dwell a bit more on the eating habits of giants. Being a Spielberg film with a script by the late Melissa Mathison, who penned Spielberg’s most iconic family-friendly blockbuster, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The BFG film downplays these darker elements and puts the central relationship more into focus. The results work well in making the film more of a character play that happens to involve an inventively created cinematic world built out of clever production design and visual effects.

Yes, some may think the man who gave us Saving Private Ryan and Munich may go a bit too far in the other direction when it comes to delivering on his sentimental side, but if it means getting a genuinely well-acted and great-looking film anyone can watch, I’m not against some minor story tweaks reflecting the filmmaker’s personality. Dahl’s work has certainly been captured in a more authentic fashion before when thinking of films such as Fantastic Mr. Fox, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, but seeing Spielberg take his chance to play around in another fantasy adventure like this certainly makes up for previous misfires.

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So how about all the pure fantasy joy on display here? The BFG boasts some impressive special effects both in the realization of a giant character and the daffy joy seen in Rylance’s commitment to the part, as well as the land of Giant Country. For his role, Rylance preserves the humorous reworking of the English language that surely humored Dahl, as he wrote the character’s dialogue in the book. It’s only a part of the character, as we are allowed to learn plenty about the BFG, including his emotions regarding the last little friend he had and the job that brings him true happiness.

This job would be collecting dreams. Without going into too much detail, there is a level of delight in seeing what the BFG chooses to perform, which is as intriguing as Sophie finds it and a key to the absurd, yet entertaining direction the film goes to resolve its narrative in the third act. It is also another reason to admire the technical abilities of Spielberg, his frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski and the rest of the filmmaking team that captures the fantastical qualities of this world in a way few other directors can appropriately manage. John Williams score is suitably affecting as well, though not on the level of his glory days.

There is a question of how effective the narrative propulsion is. With less emphasis on the stakes inherently found in giants that eat people, the film mainly relies on how strong its world-building is and what we can enjoy about the relationship between the BFG and that spunky Sophie. Seeing the other giants is good enough, with Jemaine Clement clearly having his own fun as the leader of the larger giants, with an amazing name – The Fleshlumpeater. Their presence helps move things along and it is actually respectable to see a film like this that does not feature a protracted amount of action to resolve the climax.

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This does mean the film moves at a slower pace than some of Spielberg’s other fantasy adventures that don’t require 90 minutes before seeing Peter Pan fly, but it is still a rewarding experience. The BFG captures a level of magic one hopes for when it comes to seeing a film with giants involved. There is a low-key nature to the proceedings, but not in an off-putting way. This is a film that doesn’t take its effects for granted, but is happier to respect the characters featured on screen with them instead.

As a result, The BFG has fun and funny moments (apparently Spielberg wanted to deliver the best fart joke of the year), but holds onto the sweetness that comes with any Dahl novel. It is a film appropriate for anyone, with winning performances from the two leads with a special bond. That sounds like plenty of good for a film that also goes out of its way to speak positively about embracing dreams. Take in this big friendly film and enjoy.

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