Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jermaine Clement
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…like a mandated visit to a beloved but doddering grandparent…
Considering it’s coming our way under the auspices of Spielberg, Disney and (courtesy of Walden Media) original author, Roald Dahl, this long awaited adaptation of the classic 1982 children’s novel should be a landmark. Instead, it’s just pretty okay. As to why, well, that takes some unpacking.
For the uninitiated, the BFG is the Big Friendly Giant (a mo-capped but recognisable Mark Rylance), the only non-cannibalistic member of a race of giants who come down from the unknown island that is “Giant Country” to prowl a benighted picture-book England for children to eat. The BFG’s remit is much more agreeable: he uses a kind of magic trumpet to blow dreams into sleepers, a penance for the predations of his kin.
The BFG’s world begins to change when he is spotted by – and subsequently kidnaps – young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a precocious, bright, lonely orphan of the type that usually inhabits these sorts of stories. Through Sophie, we get a tour of the BFG’s world of snozzcumbers, frobscottle, and malapropisms (Rylance’s delivery of the BFG’s jumbled lingo is a highlight), but inevitably something must be done about the rest of giant-kind, who are led by the ogre-ish Fleshlumpeater (an unrecognisable Jemaine Clement), and what passes for the plot kicks in.
The BFG is a gorgeous, reverent, occasional magical work of cinema that moves like a dead fly in molasses. Everything is beautifully crafted but seemingly nothing happens for such long stretches that the movie seems much longer than its actual two hour running time. It’s as though everyone involved felt the need to treat the source material with kid gloves, lest they sully the esteemed Dahl’s revered work.
The problem with that approach is that what works on the page does not necessarily work on the screen. The novel’s uncomplicated plot exists because it is squarely aimed at young children (7-9 is probably the sweet spot for this kind of Dahl), who can get by on funny words and fart jokes and a plot that doesn’t feel the need to twist in on itself for the sake of cleverness. The rest of us might need something more.
And yet Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extraterrestrial) staunchly resist the common practice of slipping in some background fare for the older set; The BFG is absolutely a children’s film, not a family film in the commonly understood sense. It’s all whimsy and simple machinations, running on a childlike grasp of how the world functions, and it’s oddly beautiful for that. Kids who can gut out the slow stretches will be entranced – are there still kids like that?
Ultimately, the film is more admirable than enjoyable, although there are numerous small and joyful elements sprinkled throughout; Rylance’s soulful performance, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s seemingly effortless command of composition, Barnhill’s bossy charm, the sight of the royal corgis farting their way across a ballroom (the third act ropes the Queen into the silliness, and things pick up immeasurably once this happens). It’s not enough, though. The BFG is like a mandated visit to a beloved but doddering grandparent – you love them, sure, and you’re happy enough to see them, but you’ve one eye on the clock the whole time.