In an anachronistic London, young Sophie (Barnhill) is snatched from her orphanage bed by a giant (Rylance), who takes her back to his land. Sophie learns he is a Big Friendly Giant, but that even bigger giants are hungry for human ‘beans’. The pair try to protect the world from them, using the BFG’s talent for storing and delivering dreams.
Roald Dahl has become easier since 1990 — the year the author died. When he was alive he was famously opinionated, raging at filmmakers for altering plot details or casting actors he didn’t approve of, then publicly campaigning against the films if his demands weren’t met. Some films escaped his wrath though, including the faithful-to-the-book 1989 animated version of The BFG. You’d imagine he’d be pleased with this, too: Steven Spielberg directing a script by his E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial screenwriter, the late Melissa Mathison.
Rylance is the perfect choice for this gentle, humble creature.
The story opens promisingly: John Williams’ score builds excitement as Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) explains how giants lurk in London at night, unseen to all except the insomniac orphan. Night-time London enchants like a fairy-tale city, while the first glimpses of the BFG are captivating. The prospect of a huge hand grabbing you out of your bed is one of the book’s thrills, and it’s translated well. Barnhill is a terrific young actor and her down-to-earth, bespectacled character is a far cry from Disney’s archetypal heroine.
Once we’re in his land, the full glory of the BFG unfolds: he’s a big-eared, wispy, white-haired CG wonder with the kind eyes of actor Mark Rylance, who was filmed using motion- capture cameras. Rylance — who won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies — is the perfect choice for this gentle, humble creature, and brings Dahl’s quirky dialogue to life in a soft West Country accent. Confused at first by the BFG’s muddled speech, Sophie soon learns (as we do) to love his unwittingly comical delivery, talking of human ‘beans’ and sharing his love for the fizzy drink Frobscottle, which leads to loud farts that will have kids squealing with delight.
But then something strange happens: nothing. For quite a long time. This act is heavy on dialogue between Sophie and the BFG, with scene after scene outstaying its welcome. Those who haven’t read the book might start shifting in their seats, wondering where all this is going. There’s little tension beyond visits from the nasty, bigger giants — voiced by Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader — who are intimidating enough, but underdeveloped. The BFG being bullied by the bigger boys certainly has underdog appeal, but the story pauses for too long in this repetitive loop.
It’s left to the final act to deliver — and in the nick of time, it does.
The BFG’s habit of collecting human dreams is also underused. There are a few strong visual dream-catching moments and an enjoyable visit into the head of a young boy who dreams he receives a call from the US President. But details such as this are too rare. It’s left to the final act to deliver — and in the nick of time, it does. Sophie and the BFG go to Buckingham Palace, where they change the dreams of the Queen (Penelope Wilton), in order to convince her giants are real. The Queen’s waking moments are perhaps the most thrilling of the film: will she believe the story of the little girl who is perched on her windowsill, and the giant who is lurking in the gardens?
Wilton is tremendous, and much-needed character humour comes from Rafe Spall as Mr. Tibbs, the kindly, slightly nervous butler who’s frantically trying to alert security to the intruder without breaking the moment. Rebecca Hall is lovely as the Queen’s maid, and a scene in which the BFG is lavished with breakfast — requiring multiple footmen delivering piles of eggs — proves Spielberg can do comedy. Not only does it recall the likes of Gulliver’s Travels, it reminds us what fantastical fun can come of a large cast as well as a large character.
Giant expectations may lead to tiny disappointments in this two-hander that’s slow in parts. But it still offers magic and visual delights, and the final act is a treat.