Film Review – The BFG (2016)

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At first glance, the prospect of a Steven Spielberg/Mark Rylance/Roald Dahl combination seems too good to miss: one of the foremost tellers of family friendly dramas in modern cinema, working with arguably the most captivating and naturally-talented actor alive on a story from perhaps the best ever author of children’s literature.  This big screen adaptation of one of Dahl’s best-loved books has been rattling around in developmental hell for some time.

Robin Williams was apparently up for the part of the titular giant at some point in the nineties before rights to the movie reverted back to the author’s family. Spielberg’s adaptation comes shuffling into cinemas on the back of a disappointing opening in the USA and, due to convoluted financial arrangements, shorn of its Disney branding. The end result is not quite the match made in heaven you’d hope. Ostensibly a pretty faithful adaptation and with a pair of fantastic central performances, The BFG has lost a little of the grotesque that made Roald Dahl’s work so enticing. In many ways this feels a little too much like Steven Spielberg’s Big Friendly Giant.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is fantastically amusing as the forceful little orphan Sophie who finds herself plucked from her bed in the night by Rylance’s BFG. After accidently witnessing him going about his nightly businesses, he spirits her away to Giant Country, a remote, seemingly non-fixed location north of the British Isles. While residing with him in his hovel-workshop she learns about the existence of other, not-so-friendly giants, fantastic vegetables called Snozzcumbers and the BFG’s bizarre cottage industry side-scheme of blasting dreams into people’s heads during the depths of night.

Rylance is superb as the BFG, tripping over his words with charming befuddlement like a favourite uncle. His performance is near enough exactly as the seven year-old me imagined the Giant to be when I read the book years ago. Even in a CGI role with a motion capture performance, Rylance radiates good humour and total likeability.  As discussed, Barnhill is fantastic as his counterpart hopping between indignation and wonderment with ease. Her introduction to the movie sees her giving a bunch of drunken waifs a sound bollocking in the street to much amusement. Start as you mean to go on.

And yet for all the joy to be found in the movie’s two principle performances, there are frustrations here. A stop-start narrative sees some scenes whizz by while other stumble along outstaying their welcome. A late-ish scene in which Sophie and the BFG eat breakfast with The Queen seems to take about 25 minutes which, in a two-hour kid’s movie, is an easily rectified mistake. Most of all it’s the sense that much of what makes Dahl’s book so appealing, the sense of the grotesque and the ghoulish, has been jettisoned in favour of the feel good. The Fleshlumpeater and his gang of child-eating cronies are more buffoonish than scary and Spielberg, as he is wont to do, plasters on the sentimentality towards the end.

Spielberg is making a habit of pumping out good-but-not-great movies and continues to do so here. It’s all big and a lots of fun, but perhaps a bit too friendly.

★★★1/2 |Chris Banks

Fantasy, Adventure, Family | USA/UK, 2016 | PG | Entertainment One | 22nd July 2016 (UK) | Dir.Steven Spielberg | Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton , Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall