The BFG Review

WELCOME TO GIANT COUNTRY


 

Roald Dahl was a British novelist that lived from 1916-1990.  Growing up in Wales, England Dahl (interestingly) served in the Royal Air Force during WWII as a flying ace and intelligent officer. Yet, after he serving his time in the war, Dahl’s writing flourished, becoming a very promising author to both children and adults with his best-selling works. Being called “one of the greatest storyteller for children of the 20th Century”, Dahl’ children novels have welcomed world renowned throughout the years, with his books selling over 200 million copies worldwide (and growing). With novels like James and Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matlida, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits, amongst many others, Dahl’s children’s books feature a sort of a macabre undertone (Dark humor, but still kid friendly), featuring (for most part) adults as the bad guys or some titular being or even series of events with his main protagonist a sort of “kind hearted” individual. Over the years, Hollywood has taken an interest in adapting Roald Dahl’s works into feature films, bringing some of his beloved stories to the motion picture screen. Such is the case with Walt Disney’s newest feature film as the studio (and legendary director Steven Spielberg) present a theatrical adaptation of The BFG. Does this film adaptation of Dahl’s classic children’s literature stand tall and proud (like a giant) or is it a CG visual mess that’s not worth taking the journey to “Giant County?

THE STORY


In a London orphanage, a young girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a late-night insomniac who is fed with the orphanage’s caretaker Mrs. Clonkers. During one night, Sophie glances upon a giant who appears in front of her bedroom window. Without warning, the giant plucks Sophie from bed and, with the little girl in tow, whisked his way back home in “Giant Country”, where she finally gets a look at The BFG (Mark Rylance), a 24-foot-tall giant who doesn’t eat humans and is a kind guardian of dreams. In The BFG’s dwelling, Sophie is stunned to find a room that’s filled with jars, each one containing a special dreamscape that he uses to concoct and tailors to share around the world in children’s’ dreams.  As a friendship bond grows between the Sophie and The BFG, there peace is interrupted by The Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), 50-foot-tall giant who (along with the other giants) has appetite for human “beans”, trying to locate the tiny visitor while her guardian works to keep his giant brethren away from her presence. Soon the pair hatch a plan to stop The Fleshlumpeater and other giants from eating humans, calling upon the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) for assistants.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


In my childhood, the only Roald Dahl book I’ve read was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory back in fourth grade. The rest I know about (through their reputation as Dahl’s collective works) or through “word of mouth” from people who have read them. As I said above, several of Dahl’s books have been adapted into feature film and those ones I’ve seen. Movies like Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (both the original 1971 dubbed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and 2005 version which kept the novel’s original name) are the ones remember seeing, while others like The Witches and the animated version of The BFG (the 1989 version) I’ve only seeing bits and pieces of. As for The BFG (this new 2016 one), I remember seeing the trailers and got excited to see as it was branded under Disney and directed by Steven Spielberg. I actually did pick up a copy of Dahl’s The BFG and read it, finishing it several days before I went to go see the movie. Thus, I had the story fresh in my mind when I sat down and watched the feature. What did I think of it? Spielberg’s The BFG, while having some problems, is still a “giant” kid friendly adventure with heart, humor, and imagination.

The BFG’s director is a renowned filmmaker that needs to introduction. Steven Spielberg has become an iconic Hollywood director, delivering some of the industry’s most celebrated feature films, including E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan just to name a few. It’s clear that from the get-go that Spielberg envisions this feature to be similar to his E.T. and it sort of does with a young human child encountering (and ultimately befriending) a being not from our world. Spielberg even brought on-board E.T.’s screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who sadly passed away shortly after The BFG wrapped on production) to help pen the script, bringing to life a story of an “unusual” friendship and the wonder behind it. Tweaking the script from Dahl’s novel here and there, Mathison (and by extent Spielberg) succeed in crafting a film that’s wholesome for viewing while also not being too unfaithful to its source material. Similarly, Spielberg and Mathison create a more defined theme / message for the movie than the book did, touching upon bullying and an important lesson of learning to coexist in harmony with others that are “different”.

In addition, while Dahl’s novel has sort of darker elements within, Mathison removes most of them, making The BFG a very light-hearted experience. There are still some scary bits for the younger audience (especially how some of the giant look), but, for the most part, it’s a kid friendly movie. In short, though it may not be as theatrically powerful and poignant as E.T. was, Spielberg (along with Mathison) still deliver a very moving (and whimsical) tale about a little girl and kind-hearted giant.

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As a whole, The BFG has a very “storybook” feel that Spielberg seems to create. From the opening scene of London (and Sophie’s orphanage) to The BFG’s cozy hodgepodge dwelling to the fantastical world of Dream Country, the whole movie has a whimsical wonderment to it all that does play blissfully throughout, creating an imaginative world within its storytelling frame. Coinciding with that, the CG visuals effects for the film are really good, bringing to life towering behemoth giants and fanciful environments that are awash with bright colors and intricate details. All the performances by the giants are done in mo-cap performances (motion-capture) are really great and the layered CG visuals on top of those performances help believe that these fantastical creatures. Like I said above, I’ve only seen parts of the 1989 animated version of The BFG and I can tell you that the giants in that adaptation are way scarier, looking more like giant monsters with some minor humanistic traits. How they appear in this 2016 version are more toned down the scare level and look more like giant “humans” (albeit an uglier and tad grotesque). An example of this is in the giant Fleshlumpeater (watch him in the 1989 animated cartoon and then in the 2016 movie). Still, even if there “scare factor” is dialed down, the amount of detail of how they look (skin, wrinkles, facial features, etc.) are astoundingly real. And I wouldn’t expect anything less from the talented visual wizards at WETA Workshop (the visuals behind The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.).

As a side-note, the musical score for the movie, composed by John Williams, is light and whimsical (just like the feature) and I do have to mention that the sound editing did a great job, creating unique sounds for various objects as well as (and most notably) in the pounding footsteps of the giants. Lastly (before I forget), I do have to mention The BFG’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for creating some nifty camera angles that shows either how small Sophie is to The BFG (and in his dwelling) and showing how big the giants look in their size comparison.

Like a lot of Dahl’s children novels, BFG’s source material is fully of imaginative beings and locations that sort of lend themselves to making the film adaptation entertaining. Unfortunately, Dahl’s 1982 novel of The BFG, while creative, fun, and engaging towards it audience, isn’t really a plot-driven novel with the narrative that’s not as strong for a clear cut three-act structure. This does arise in adapting The BFG as Spielberg (along with Mathison’s screenplay) seem to lose their way at various points, especially at the beginning of third act, and creates pacing issues. With the film running roughly two hours long, The BFG “self-indulges” in several scenes that play for laughs and jokes (as I’m sure kids will laugh them), but these sequences go off on a tangent, sometimes losing the narrative plot that’s at hand. Another shortcoming in the movie are some of the new concepts that are introduced in the story, but are never fully explained (Why do the giants hate water?) or could’ve been more expanded upon (The BFG’s first human child encounter?). As an extension for that, due to Spielberg’s illustrious film career, many fans / moviegoers are going to have “high” expectations for what this renowned director does in the movie. Thus, it becomes apparent that Spielberg (as a director) isn’t outshining his previous works as some viewers might judge The BFG harder because of who directed the movie. To me, I’m spilt down the middle on that. Yes, I love and respect Spielberg and his movies, but The BFG is a still a good movie, despite its flaws and missteps.

Perhaps the biggest star in the movie is The BFG himself that’s played by Mark Rylance via motion captured performance. Following his Oscar-winning performance in Bridge of Spies (also directed by Spielberg), Rylance delivers an incredible richly-drawn performance within a character that’s quite unique and equally rich in its persona. The BFG’s mumbling “giant talk” and his tendency to speak in malapropisms (using an incorrect word in place of a word that sounds similar) are handled with great ease by Rylance, while his facial / physical expressions and movements help render the digital creation of 24-foot-tall giant to life in ways that a 100% digital CG creation could never do. In short, Rylance’s BFG is downright endearing and true “focal” point of the entire feature. Sharing the main spotlight with Rylance is the young and newcomer child actress Ruby Barnhill, who plays the orphan girl’s protagonist Sophie. Since I recently just read the book, the character of Sophie, as a whole, was used as instrument for readers (experiencing what she saw through her eyes) as Dahl didn’t give her much of a personality. Thus, Spielberg and Mathison give Sophie more depth, showcasing the young girl with enough spunk, courage, and determination. Equally, Barnhill shows that as well within Sophie. Her performance is also a crucial part in The BFG as it shows the bond between her and The BFG himself, but also sells the imagery and mo-cap performance, believing that a nine-year-old girl is really interacting with giant beings.

With most of the film’s screen-time being shared between Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill, The BFG has a small supporting cast that, while played by talented individuals, are there to help gain momentum to the movie’s plot and not so much to themselves within their character. Jemaine Clement is the only member of the evil giants that is given a full personality. However, while as I said he looks like an awesome as the towering and brutish Fleshlumpeater, he’s a stereotypical footnote villain. Still, Clement brings enough creativeness to make the character to be memorable in the film (wish there was more of him in it). I did read that actor Bill Hader did one of the voices for the giants (The Bloodbottler), but I didn’t even recognize his voice in the movie. The only other supporting cast members worth noting are Downton Abbey alum Penelope Wilton as the Queen of England and Rebecca Hall, known for her roles in The Gift and The Town, as the Queen’s maid Mary. Both Wilton and Hall do good jobs in serving their characters, even though the characters are generally flat and (like I said above) are there to propel events forward.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Roald Dahl’s story of a little girl and giant gets a live action adaptation in the new movie The BFG. Director Steven Spielberg’s latest feature spins a kid friendly yarn that’s full of imagination and wonder, thanks to its source material, impressive CG visuals, and a terrific performance from Mark Rylance (hope he gets an Oscar nomination for this role).  While the movie struggles at points and has some pacing problems as well as removing Dahl’s darker elements, the movie still retains a whimsical and joyous fun. To me, it had its moments that could’ve been better and / or cut, but (as a whole) it was a good film for both Spielberg and its intended target audiences. That being said, I do recommend this movie (for younger viewers mostly), but it might be a spilt decision (an iffy choice) for everyone else on the account of those who wanted something more (either from adapting Dahl’s work or from Spielberg himself). In short, The BFG is a perfect suitable family adventure and a perfect fit underneath the “Disney” name / banner. It may not be incredibly awesome, but it has enough endearing qualities to be memorable in Dahl’s adapted feature films.

3.8 Out of 5 (Recommended / Iffy-Choice)

 

Released On: July 1st, 2016
Reviewed On: July 2nd, 2016

The BFG  is rated PG for action / peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor

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