Joyce Glasser reviews The BFG (July 22, 2016)
The BFG is, as you may well know by now, Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated 3D CGI adaptation of Roald Dahl’s best-selling children’s book about a young orphan girl’s relationship with a dream-collecting giant.
The combination of Dahl, Spielberg, Mark Rylance and another portrayal of the Queen (this one by the excellent Penelope Wilton) might be sufficient to draw in the crowds, but this BFG may fade from your memory long before it fades from the cinema screens.
Shot by Schindler’s List cinematographer with imaginative and atmospheric production design from Robert Stromberg (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland), the film looks very good, particularly given the various heights that have to appear on screen at any one time.
The main problem is that the instinct of the late script writer Melissa Mathison, best known for Spielberg’s E.T, seems to have failed her, while two key casting decisions do not help.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan in 1980s London, is prevented from sleeping by a bright moonbeam, stares out the window of her dormitory, when she is frozen by the sight of ‘something black…Something tall and black….Something very black and very tall and very thin approaching her.
The film captures these early London scenes magnificently and young children might be frozen in awe along with Sophie when a giant hand reaches through the window and grabs the sole eye witness of its existence in the palm of his giant hand. Off they go to giant country.
Fortunately for Sophie, the giant (Mark Rylance) is a big (24-foot), friendly, giant (BFG) who does not travel to London to find his dinner. Instead, he blow dreams that he collects into the rooms of sleeping children, saving the nightmares for strategic purposes.
Remaining in giant country, however, is not feasible. First, there is nothing for Sophie to eat. The BFG’s only food is a horrible vegetable called a Snozzcumber that Sophie could swallow let alone digest. Secondly, it won’t be long before the other giants get wind of Sophie and eat her.
When the BFG takes Sophie dream catching, they have a narrow escape crossing through the sleeping giants’ territory. Twice, (once in the book), the giants raid the BFG’s wonderfully story-book-like cottage, challenging Sophie to find ingenious hiding places. What children won’t think of all the hide-and-seek games they could play here!
Thirdly, Sophie cannot ignore her discovery that children are being ‘disappeared’ by these giants. She enlists the BFG’s help in persuading her ‘Majester’ the Queen and ‘The Ruler of Straight Lines’ to stop the carnage. But first, she needs’ the BFG to create a nightmare that will turn the Queen into a believer.
While The BFG is a faithful adaptation, when the BFG’s made-up words are read or read out loud from the book, they sound funnier than in the BFG’s delivery. The filmmakers seem to realise this and reduce the wordplay-studded dialogue. More detrimentally, certain scenes are omitted or shifted around for no apparent reason in a way that reduces the humour and impact on other scenes.
For example, we never experience the giant regurgitating the revolting Snozzcumber, or experience a moment of intimacy and enjoyment between Sophie and the BFG over the discovery of the Frobscottle, a delicious fizzy drink whose bubbles go down instead of up. The joke is that this induces Whizzpoppers (farts) that are so powerful that they send both drinkers into orbit.
This intimate early scene is transferred in the film to the final Buckingham Palace scenes where it is far less effective, and not only because there is already too much going on in this sequence. In the book, when the BFG wants to introduce Frobscottle to the Queen so that everyone can be ‘happily whizzpopping together afterward’ we already know what it means and so does Sophie, who puts a stop to it.
We laugh at imagining the Queen and entourage farting around but are spared the undignified experience. The Queen, mistakenly believing the BFG is referring to making music, calls for the bagpipes.
In the film, this joke about the music is lost. Frobscottle is introduced here for the first time and everyone drinks it with predictable, but oddly less humorous, results.
Equally disappointing, the film does not present a clear picture of why Sophie is so adamant about stopping the 54-foot human ‘bean’- eating giants. In an early sequence full of black humour, the BFG describes the variety of ‘bean’s available around the globe.
‘People from Wales taste of fish – ‘there is something very fishy about Wales,’ he explains. Sophie corrects him, offering ‘whales’, to which he retorts, ‘Don’t gobblefunk around with words.’ ‘What do the people of Labrador taste of?’ Sophie asks. ‘Danes,’ the Giant answers, ‘Great Danes.’
When Sophie asks if he isn’t getting it mixed up with Denmark, he concedes ‘I is a very mixed-up Giant, but I do my best,’ a line all school children could use. This long, hilarious sequence from the book is lost in translation.
While Mark Rylance won an Oscar for his supporting performance in Spielberg’s last film, The Bridge of Spies, and looks a bit like the BFG in the book’s drawings, his celebrated style of humour is too deadpan (or downbeat) for the book’s dialogue and audience.
There is nothing funny about his plays on words and, hilarious as he was on stage in Jerusalem, he is more endearing than alternately scary, vulnerable and funny here. His co-star, Ruby Barnhill, is not a natural comedienne. While she looks the part, we do not go on a journey with her, noting the orphan’s sense of wonderment, fear and outrage as well as her growing confidence as she sheds her sense of powerlessness.
Barnhill lacks the charisma we need from a character that drives the story and is in nearly every scene. The supporting cast, which includes Jemaine Clement as the Fleshlumpeater; Bill Hader as Bloodbottler; Rebecca Hall as the Queen’s maid, and Rafe Spall as the butler is excellent.
Spielberg, like Martin Scorsese, has always been particularly conscience of being a director/producer of dreams in a dream factory. He was obviously drawn to the parallels between a giant of cinema creating the story of physical giant who also creates dreams. The BFG is an impeccably made film that will entertain children during the long school holiday, but it should have been a classic.
You can watch the film trailer here: