On a dark night, at the witching hour, an orphan named Sophie glimpses a strange shadow on the streets, quickly realizing it’s a giant. She rushes to hide under the blankets of her bed, but a massive hand reaches in through the window and carries her off to Giant Country where her adventure begins. There she learns that her abductor is big friendly giant and that his kin are the ones she needs to watch out for.
I have been a lover of Roald Dahl since I was very little and had Charlie and the Chocolate Factory read to me chapter by chapter at night. From there I remember books like The Twits, Matilda, and of course The BFG. Of Dahl’s children’s books The BFG is one I don’t think about often. I remembered the illustrations by Quentin Blake with the giant’s comically oversized ears, but as for the story I didn’t remember much of it. Steven Spielberg is another figure I remember vividly from my childhood. I can’t say what the first Spielberg movie I saw was, I have memories of a some scenes from E.T. early on, but I would guess the first one I watched in its entirety was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg is known for the sentimentality he tries to weave into his work, which would seem to be in opposition to the sometimes caustic wit Dahl brings to his writing.
The acting in The BFG is pretty much perfect. Mark Rylance as the titular giant has captured every aspect of the character from his soft garbled understanding of language to his jumps from hunched shuffler around his cave to nimble leaper through the city streets. Ruby Barnhill as Sophie delivers a very confident performance, never coming across as an act-y kid, but feeling like an actual Dahl protagonist. The supporting cast doesn’t have much screen time, but they do their jobs adequately, the evil giants being the big standouts. The film lives or dies on the performances of Rylance and Barnhill and they are very strong.
The plot of The BFG is quite different than I think we’ve become accustomed to lately. This is an older style of Spielberg storytelling, where there is no epic battle between the forces of good and evil. The conflict is solved fairly quickly with a short exciting moment. The emphasis is on our two central characters and their relationship. An element of the Tim Burton directed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that irked me was the addition of backstory to Wonka. It felt like the most unnecessary and pointless addition to a story that didn’t need it. In the same way we got the backstory of the Grinch or prequels attempt to fill in the gaps, these choices miss the point. We don’t need to know the origin of Santa Claus to love Santa. We don’t need to know how the Easter Bunny got his eggs to love Easter.
Dahl understood the details children are truly concerned about and he knew that they would accept larger than life characters without questions about where they came from. This is where the film shines because it flows like a Dahl narrative more than any other adaptation of his work I’ve seen. The plot is a lovely mess and not much really happens. But the time we spend with these two characters as they learn about each other is action enough. I loved how long some conversation scenes were, just these two bantering and hearing The BFG transformation of the English language.
I enjoy the latest superhero beat ‘em up very much. But it is very heartening to see a film like this still being made. It’s a picture about kindness and understanding. The BFG loves to help other but is very insecure about his speech and what other might do to him if they discover his existence. Problems are not solved through violence, but through peaceful means. Yes, the mean bad giants get what’s coming to them but it’s not being blown away and destroyed. Even they have a place in the world. And in this current climate, learning to understand that even your enemies deserve life and place in the world is a refreshing idea.