The works of Roald Dahl were a massive part of my childhood. Well before Harry Potter, his weird, wonderful, quirky and often frightening stories – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches and the like – were among those I re-read the most. At the time, though, I was never too enamoured with the various film adaptations of his books, though I like some of them better as an adult. The subject of this review, The BFG, has been adapted once before into a made-for-TV animated film with David Jason voicing the title character; now, Steven Spielberg has directed this live-action adaptation – and the result, unfortunately, is a disappointment.
While wandering about her orphanage one night, a little girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) happens to see a giant roaming the streets – the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG (Mark Rylance). To ensure Sophie doesn’t tell anyone, the BFG snatches her from her bed and carries off to his home in Giant Country. It turns out that the BFG is just one of ten giants – and the other nine, who are significantly bigger and meaner than him, like to go out and eat “human beans”. The BFG not only refrains from eating people, but has given himself the job of catching dreams and delivering them into children’s bedrooms. As her friendship with the BFG grows, Sophie tries to come to terms with her new living arrangements, to avoid being eaten – and to find some way to stop the human-eating giants once and for all.
The best thing I can say about this movie is that it looks absolutely fantastic. The CGI and motion capture on the BFG and the other giants makes them expressive and fully convincing; Mark Rylance also does a great job conveying the BFG’s awkwardness, loneliness and occasional grouchiness. The setting where the BFG catches his dreams is very pretty, and once they are inside his jars, the dreams take on some beautiful and imaginative shapes. The film makes full use of Sophie trying to navigate and being thrown around the environment designed for giants, and Ruby Barnhill puts plenty of effort into her performance. Plus, through the use of frobscottle – the drink of choice for giants, where the bubbles fizz down instead of up – the film features a fart joke which is actually quite funny: a rare accomplishment indeed.
But the other elements of the film don’t really work, and I couldn’t help but compare a lot of it unfavourably to the book. For example, after Sophie has been taken by the BFG, the subjects they talk about, and the building of their friendship, have a natural progression and structure – but in the film, this dialogue is all cut and pasted and mixed up, and it’s hard to get a feel for the relationship in its early stages. For the first two thirds, there’s not that much of a plot to speak of. There is some backstory, which wasn’t in the book, about the BFG keeping a human before Sophie; this adds a little extra poignancy and some opportunity for character development, but still feels superfluous. Many scenes feel much longer than they need to be. The BFG is not even referred to as such until almost halfway through the film.
Some slight changes from the original material also become confusing. Even though Sophie isn’t supposed to be out of bed at her orphanage, she is able to wander around without being especially surrepticious, and even shouts out of the window at some drunks without getting caught. When trying to creep past the other giants, the BFG carries Sophie visibly on his shoulder instead of hiding her in his pocket, apparently just so she can be involved in the action scene that ensues. In the book, the BFG explains that he is forced to eat disgusting snozzcumbers because nothing else grows in the barren wasteland that is Giant Country – but in the film, Giant Country is picturesque and covered in grass, and it is hard to understand why no more appetising vegetables would be present. On the subject of snozzcumbers, they certainly look horrible enough, but the BFG only shows mild distaste at eating them, instead of struggling to force down every bite.
I didn’t like how the other giants were portrayed either. They are a visually diverse bunch – though while all their names are listed by the BFG, we get little opportunity to assign names to faces – but they look too human, and we don’t see or hear enough about their human-munching to make them feel really dangerous. In the book, especially the illustrations by Quentin Blake, the giants look monstrous, with lips like “two gigantic purple frankfurters” and “rivers of spit (running) down over the chin”; the reader never directly witnesses them eating people, but they look so horrible, and the BFG goes into enough detail describing their activities to Sophie, that they come across as far more threatening than the giants in the film. Indeed, the overall tone of the film never goes dark enough: even a scene where the giants are all hunting Sophie, which should be tense, feels too light and comical.
Overall, The BFG looks brilliant, but fails to fully embrace the nature of its source material and doesn’t provide an especially entertaining story – I recommend you skip it. Rating: 2/5.