When Steven Spielberg adapts a classic children’s story, it sometimes irks viewers. Whether it is Hook, War Horse or The Adventures of Tintin, all three were met with a mixed reaction. Spielberg, for many, means E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jurassic Park. Undeniably, these are high-points in his blockbuster canon. But if you are in the group that enjoyed his less-celebrated family favourites, then The BFG has the charm, finesse and playfulness that makes so many of Spielberg’s movies a must-see.
This adaptation of Roald Dahl’s text is a complete fantasy; a fictional world that you have to drown yourself within to enjoy. London streets are cobbled, children are clever smarty-pants and, trespassing on Buckingham Palace is met with a breakfast inside the largest room in the Queen’s home. The BFG, plays much like the Brian Cosgrove animated film from 1989 (whereby David Jason expertly captured the giant’s quirky language) but with an enormous improvement in its presentation. The opening, as young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is snatched by the BFG (Mark Rylance) in the night, is steeped in fearsome shadow and, leaving the city, exploits the glorious countryside of Britain. Despite the BFG’s guarantee that he won’t eat Sophie, she’s told that she’ll never return to the Orphanage. In awe of the dream-catching the BFG has been tasked with, Sophie then finds out how the big friendly giant has his own issues. Actual child-eating giants bully and pick on our favourite big man and stalk towns to steal children away. Together, Sophie and the BFG vow to stop their terrible attack on the children of England.
It is worth reminding ourselves why Steven Spielberg remains an outstanding filmmaker in 2016. First and foremost, The BFG depicts a vivid character in Mark Rylance’s performance that’s an absolute joy to be in the company of. Even in close up, he is rendered with warm eyes and a likeable grin as comforting as your favourite grandparent. Rylance himself is worth, once again, celebrating (anther Oscar nomination I hope…). His twisty terms and Yoda-like confused syntax is perfectly delivered and oozes authenticity. John Williams score equally captures the sprawling, fantastical world of Roald Dahl. Rarely can a composer consistently whisk you away so far to almost detach you from the cinema you sit within. Then there’s the framing and exquisite shots from cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. Bathed in the depth of jet-black night, with only the glow of small lamps, torches and street lights, Kamiński manages to create a dream-like world that we recognise in Spielberg’s previous films and looks as inviting as the Harry Potter series. The BFG looks tremendous, whereby each shot could be captured and framed.
But The BFG is not without its flaws. The connection between reality and motion-captured graphics is often unsure. When Sophie wriggles around in the hand of a giant, it doesn’t feel real and begs for the entire film to be in mo-cap, akin to The Adventures of Tintin. It also feels dated and elitist. When the vast majority of the cast is white and the ‘solution’ to our heroines’ problems is to live with The Queen, it all sits a little strangely in 2016. Considering Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall turn up in the final act, it is no surprise to learn that both actors are children of acclaimed members of the theatre (Actor Timothy Spall and director Peter Hall are their respective fathers) only reminding us of the understandable privileges of those who know the right people. It would’ve been nice to see a modern, contemporary take on the tale. We’ve seen this story before but the fear of “those we don’t know” is a timeless theme we need in this current era – and if that means meandering a little off Dahl’s plot, then so be it (though, famously, the Dahl foundation are fiercely protective of the stories and their adaptations in film, TV and theatre). The BFG is frivolous fun but when it feels like merely a live-adaptation of a 1989 movie, it begs the question why is it important in 2016?