Steven Spielberg‘s adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s beloved children’s classic, “The BFG,” is a heart-meltingly magical ride. The idea of Spielberg adapting Dahl for Walt Disney (remarkably, the first film he’s directed for the studio) obviously comes with a hefty load of expectations, with millions of childhoods molded by the three powerhouse names combined. It’s remarkable, then, that the film’s reluctant attitude to action and palpable danger makes but a tiny dent to those expectations. The late, great Melissa Mathison (“E.T.”) adapted the novel with abundant warmth and a pure kind of innocence that’s remarkably rare nowadays, making “The BFG” an emotional as much as a visual transportive experience for children of all sizes. Meanwhile, the grown-ups, beside revelling in Dahl’s wordy wizardry and Spielberg’s knack for snug, familial atmosphere, will also get a special treat in watching the dauntingly magnificent Mark Rylance in a role that he was clearly destined to play.
Whisking us off into a fantastical world not five minutes into it, the film is built on the bond forged between young orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, in a strong feature debut) and the Big Friendly Giant (Rylance), a big-hearted 29-foot tall creature who lives in Giant Country. When Sophie accidentally-on-purpose spots the BFG during one of his nightly outings around London, he grabs her from the orphanage and takes her back to his dwellings, concerned that she would alarm everyone about his existence. His enchanted land lies beyond Great Britain, where he lives as an outsider next to all his bigger and meaner giant brothers. They all snack on “human beans” with lip-smacking pleasure while the soft-spoken BFG is a vegetarian who eats snozzcumbers (the only putrid vegetable that grows in Giant Country) even though he finds them disgusting. With brilliantly imaginative names that could only be concocted by Dahl (of which Meatdripper, Bloodbottler and Gizzardgulper are the greatest), the nine brothers are led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), the baddest of them all, who starts to sniff out Sophie and poses the most immediate danger to her. It’s just too bad that Mathison and Spielberg didn’t instil any of Dahl’s convincing menace into these creatures, turning them instead into giant ogres who pose dwarf-sized threats.
In BFG’s cave, Sophie quickly learns that he is nothing like his scary and sizeable exterior suggests. Incredibly kind, generous and thoughtful, the big-eared BFG warns Sophie about the other giants and tells her about his life. He steals off to Dream Country every night to collect dreams and spread them to children across Britain while bottling the nightmares away in his lab. He shows her what frobscottle is, a green drink made from snozzcumber that’s actually quite tasty and, due to its inverted fizziness, produces whizz-popping (you won’t find a more positive and joyous moniker for farting anywhere else). Seeing how he gets bullied by his older brothers, and strongly relating to his isolation and outsider status, Sophie finally decides to save BFG from his mean siblings with assistance from the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton).
There is no villain with plans of world domination in “The BFG,” and the children who quietly sleep in their beds are none the wiser to the threats of being eaten alive. In fact, it’s the BFG who’s in the greatest danger, and thanks to his heart-warming personality and Sophie’s steely resolve to help him, we grow ever-so-close to both of them as the film patiently progresses. What “The BFG” lacks in the adrenaline rush usually felt in adventurous children’s tales, it makes up for in the undeniable chemistry between Rylance and Barnhill and in the visual splendor of the created fantasy land that one gets so easily and wonderfully lost in. Mathison also made the spot-on decision to keep as much of Dahl’s ingenious Gobblefunk dialogue (Giant language) as possible for the screen adaptation, using the scrunchiest slang to make the BFG and his awkwardly shy, squiggly speech patterns resonate with particular poignancy. Everything he says is enough to put a smile on your face, and as delivered by Rylance’s euphonious voice, don’t be surprised if you reach for the Kleenex box on a few occasions.
A combination of performance-capture and live-action, Rylance is truly is a wonder here. The man has uncanny powers; always teetering on the edge of sadness and fear with wholehearted half-smiles, eye twinkles and bouts of glee, the actor breathes enormous, transformative and utterly unforgettable life into Dahl’s kind giant. Spielberg discovered a treasure in Rylance, casting him as the BFG as soon as they had started shooting “The Bridge of Spies” (for which Rylance, of course, won the Oscar) and they’re slated to work together on two upcoming films. If Rudolf Abel wasn’t enough to convince you why the two have got on so swimmingly, the BFG surely will (and if he doesn’t, you might be coming down with something and should seek immediate medical attention). The only other performance that’s not completely overshadowed by the giant is Barnhill’s. Considering it’s her first feature film, she is very impressive as the determined and brave Sophie — her “don’t ‘little missy’ me!” from one of the first scenes foreshadows a performance that’s both unflinching and adorable to boot.
When the BFG takes Sophie to Dream Country, or when she’s discovering his laboratory, the film is at its most visually vicarious; colors, reflections, and lights — combined work of Spielberg’s long-time DP Janusz Kaminski and the legendary Weta Workshop — take the breath away and widen the eyes with wonder. Time will tell if the picture will stand toe-to-toe with “E.T.” (interestingly enough, released the same year when Dahl’s book was published), but seeing as how the film breaks away from the author’s darker shades and complexities in order to focus all its power on the central friendship, the chances of that are undeniably slim. The good news is, though, that it doesn’t have to stand toe-to-toe with anything, not “E.T” or Dahl’s incomparable novel. It certainly meanders on occasion and more time could have been spent setting up Sophie’s world before she met BFG or with the hilarious scenes at Buckingham Palace. But, for the most part, “The BFG” exceeds expectations in terms of Rylance’s performance, and joyously expounds the essence of a cherished children’s tale with imaginative glory and boundless love. [B+]