Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Runtime: 117 Minutes
The children's stories of Roald Dahl are amongst some of the most enduring and memorable in modern literature. His ability to interweave strong moral themes and personal beliefs concerning the nature of childhood is inspired to say the very least, and his weird and wonderful ways with dialogue and description are just one of the reasons why people continue to empathise with his works to this day.
Although the translation of many of his stories to the big screen has always had issues in some regard, they have allowed for the styles and machinations of specific filmmakers to bleed over into their own interpretations of Dahl's inhabited worlds. Some have been good (Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda) while others have left much to be desired (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), but no big screen depiction has ever felt as honest in its translation as the original material.
In no real surprise to anyone, it took the efforts of Steven Spielberg - one of narrative cinema's greatest living storytellers - to bring The BFG to life in a manner unseen before. It's earnest, impassioned and on all fronts the visually scrumptious adventure worthy of the source material.
Operating from a screenplay that gives us the final work of the late, great Melissa Mathison (of E.T.fame), it feels like a work of passion from its creators to bring the timeless tale to life in such a grand cinematic manner. The film feels as though its narrative carries with it a spiritual bondage to Spielberg's 1982 Sci-Fi classic, following young orphan outsider Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) as she finds a friend in the form of an unimaginable being from another world. Barnhill may be a newcomer but she shows talent, while the chemistry that she exudes with Mark Rylance as the titular colossus is really solid, and it’s the relationship between the pair that holds the entire film together.
Rylance's performance is astonishingly well judged and the work of a true thespian. The mannered nuances he balances with incongruous farce as he grumbles his way through the scenery with a constant spring in his step, and the way in which the tumbles his way through the fantastically gibberish dialogue is just marvellous. It’s just amazing to see the intricacies of his homely, lived in performance brought to life through some of the most remarkable technology that never allows the performance to get lost underneath the digital gloss of the motion capture work. The same applies to Jemaine Clement’s performance as the despicable giant leader Fleshlumpeater, who evidently relishes his nefarious role.
The film’s world - from an anachronistic vision of London through to Giant and Dream Countries - is rendered and realised with so much adoring detail, and the artifice of the surroundings never feels like the distraction that it could do in the hands of lesser filmmakers. Spielberg is a veteran, and knocks it out of the park from a directorial perspective, with his work with DP Janusz Kamiński still as distinctive as ever.
For all of the promise and exceptional effort that has been put behind the production, though, it is lamentable that while the film is consistently enjoyable, there are some rather enormous shortcomings that bring the film down from its grasps at greatness. For one, the picture strains under the length of its almost two-hour runtime. There simply doesn’t appear to be enough content available to fill the film up to feature length with suitable narrative and dramatic heft, which appears to come from its overt faithfulness to the quaintness of its source material actually limiting its sense of storytelling scope. As such, the pace drags to such a degree in the second and third acts that even the youngest audience members may find themselves shuffling in their seats with exhaustion as one scene after another outstays its welcome. All the visual acrobatics in the world can’t save the fact that the story simply doesn’t move fast enough at times.
One another note, while the screenplay is faithful to its origin’s tone and themes, it fails to flesh out many of the supporting roles beyond their billed positions. The entire third act at the palace of Queen Elizabeth II – played by the kindly Penelope Wilton – features an array of notable faces like Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall who feel incredibly wasted in their minor roles. Meanwhile, the man-eating giants of Giant Country, though designed well, bare little engagement beyond physical demeanour and aren’t especially interesting.
For all that it lacks though, The BFG is still a charming feature overall that asserts its themes of inner strength and ability, delivering a decent message overall to children about the importance of standing up for yourself and facing your fears. It’s fun when it needs to be, even if it eclipses much of the dark strangeness of the Dahl book - and the glorious whizzpopping on show might be the biggest laugh for kids all year.