Five years have gone by since acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg last wet his feet in the pools of the fantasy genre with his motion-capture adaptation of “The Adventures of Tintin.” In between then and now, Spielberg has been fixated on jumping back in time to tackle the more political and historical side of the film spectrum with “War Horse,” “Lincoln,” and “Bridge of Spies.” Now, with his first directorial effort under the Disney name, the iconic director has brought Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s novel “The BFG” to the big screen for the first time. This film marks something of a return for Spielberg, with it being his first “whimsical family film” in a very long time. It also happens to be the final screenwriting credit for Melissa Mathison, who passed away this past November. Mathison isn’t a household name, per say, but she and Spielberg made magic happen when they collaborated to produce 1982’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” In a way, it’s oddly perfect to have had these two involved in adapting Dahl’s story to the big screen. Compared to the adaptations of other works by Dahl, such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda,” one may be wondering how this stands amongst them, as well as how it ranks in the cinematic auteur’s undeniably recognizable catalog.
I remember reading “The BFG” when I was in elementary school and absolutely adored it. Sadly a book-to-film comparison is off the table for this review since I barely remember the actual contents of the book when I initially read it. The story follows a young orphan girl who one night sees a giant walking along an empty London road. Said giant sees her see him, so he takes her away to “Giant Country” to live out the rest of her days with him. But don’t worry, the giant’s a friendly guy who ends up forming a bond with the girl that, thanks to the presence of bigger and meaner Giants, puts both of their lives in danger. Think “Annie” meets “Jack and the Beanstalk” meets “Hook,” so to speak.
The first twenty minutes, I felt, got off to something of a rocky start. It’s not that it was necessarily “bad,” but the excitement and wonder it was trying to convey fell somewhat stale compared to the first twenty minutes of other Spielberg movies such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Once the villain Giants make their first appearances, then things start getting more interesting. However, the “Spielberg magic” that makes almost all of his movies work began to work its powers once The BFG takes Sophie, the young girl, to “Dream Country.” It was from this point on that the movie went from being just average family fare to something much more special and more along the lines of what we’ve come to expect from the man that made “E.T.” and “Hook.” Compared to other Dahl adaptations, this is one of my least favorites. Having said that, it’s still a fun, whimsical, and sweet enough adventure to recommend, especially for families.
Having just directed him to his first Academy Award in “Bridge of Spies,” Spielberg cast Mark Rylance as the movie’s larger-than-life titular character. At first, The BFG comes off as rather unlikable and cranky, but once he begins to ease up to the precocious Sophie, he becomes a lot more enjoyable to watch. Rylance is, to an extent, Spielberg’s version of Christoph Waltz regarding being recognized at a later point in their career, leading to their eventual recognition in accolades. It’s apparent in the performance that he’s having a lot of fun playing this character, and in return, we as an audience get to enjoy the wonderment of the Giant along with the world these characters live in. As strong as Rylance is in the movie, though, the true standout comes in the form of actress Ruby Barnhill.
I would argue that this decade alone has produced some of the best child performances the film industry has ever seen. We’ve had diligent and mature work from kids, and we’ve also just had fun and overall likable work from them as well. Ruby Barnhill’s portrayal of Sophie is something of a mixture between serious and fun. This 11-year-old actress, who’s making her acting debut with this movie, adds an extra level of wonderment and whimsy to the story, which is saying something considering the subject matter at hand. The way I saw her performance was something of a combination between Drew Barrymore in “E.T.,” Mara Wilson in “Matilda,” and Anna Paquin in “The Piano.” There’s a subtle amount of maturity in how she handles herself alongside Rylance, and at the same time, there’s a whole lot of playfulness in her execution of some lines. Hearing her say “Oh my” during a couple of scenes brought me back to the sensation and charm of the fantasy films that I grew up with, specifically “Matilda” among other things. I sincerely hope that she’s able to get more work as the years go on, as she continues this trend of incredible child performances that have been making their rounds throughout this decade. The rest of the cast delivers and rounds the cast out quite well, but it’s going to be these two who you end up talking heavily about once the credits roll.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, though filled up with lots of CGI, is pretty great to look at, making us remember why he’s been Spielberg’s “go-to” cinematographer since “Schindler’s List.” The CGI in its own right is also very pleasant to look at, with the effects done to make Rylance look more like Dahl’s character being particularly brilliant. Of course, you couldn’t have a Steven Spielberg movie without having John Williams conducting the score, and this is no exception. Williams’ score is, like the movie, whimsical, magical, and really enjoyable to listen to. Immediately I was reminded of the scores he did on films such as the first three “Harry Potter” films and “E.T.” due to its signature Williams composition and overall “sound.” The story itself lends to more inventive and fantastical concepts and interpretations, which makes these guys the somewhat ideal people to tackle this project.
As for the film’s screenplay, like I said earlier the first 20 minutes are rocky. Mathison hits the appropriate beats that get things going and turns things into magic, so to speak. I will give her credit and say that the dialogue she wrote, along with certain sequences, did manage to impress me and bring the inner child in me out. The biggest issue that the script has, though, is that the last 30 minutes or so of it feel sped up and much faster than it should have felt. I can’t go into specifics without spoiling anything, but once Sophie and the BFG end up concocting a plan to rid the world of the evil giants, things feel like they happen without much of an impact left. The climax comes and goes with the audience feeling like a chunk of it was cut out. Then again, the movie is almost two hours long, so it’s understandable why it could have been cut out. I will hand it to the late screenwriter, though: for this to be her final screenplay, I believe Melissa Mathison ended her career on a strong, high, and bittersweet note. Her presence in the world of screenwriting, though scarce and spread out over several decades, will be missed.
If you go into “The BFG” expecting the next modern-day masterpiece or even one of Spielberg’s best movies, chances are you’ll probably be disappointed. If you go in expecting a fun, whimsical, and entertaining family movie, though, I think you’ll walk out overall satisfied. Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill are pleasant to watch, the story is simple yet effective, the visual effects and cinematography are beautiful, and everything as a whole culminates into a sweet movie that people young and old can enjoy in some way. There are some jokes that fall flat scattered throughout it, but there are also some that managed to get either chuckles or big laughs out of me. It might be odd to say that a fart joke is the funniest thing this film has to offer, but that’s not an insult on this movie’s behalf whatsoever. Leave it to the director of “Jaws” and “Saving Private Ryan” to make a joke about farting individuals work wonders. At the end of the day, I would recommend “The BFG” to Spielberg enthusiasts, fans of the book, and just families in general. If you have to choose between 3D and 2D, though, 2D is the better option for the most part. “The BFG” might not overall be as “scrumdiddlyumptious” as some might have hoped, but it is a very fun and fantastical adventure that the whole family will enjoy.