Roald Dahl is just the best. I know it is rather cliched to praise him as it’s commonly accepted that he is one of the best children’s authors of the last 50 years, but I feel as if we forget sometimes. There are not many authors that can combine the whimsy and childishness that can get a kid into reading a book with the darkness and intrigue that means the kid will continue to read them. So of course they have been made into films and usually, they are great too. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach are all adored on the page and on the screen. So there’s a lot of expectation on Disney’s The BFG, can it cope with all that pressure?
An orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, 4 O’Clock Club) spends all night reading because she can’t get to sleep. However while staying up late, she is kidnapped by the BFG (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies) and is taken to Giant country so she can never reveal the existence of giants. However she is in constant danger as the other giants love to eat children.
This film seems like it should be perfect just by looking at the people behind it. Because if there is anyone on this Earth who can combine whimsy and darkness like Roald Dah could, it is director Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) who helms this film. And from the off, he has got the tone perfect. From the fantastic score just to the way this world is lit like a storybook, you feel like you’ve been plucked from your living room and plopped into a world of Dahl’s creation. This is the highest praise I can give this movie because despite a number of brilliant adaptations coming forward, this I feel is the film that has nailed the atmosphere of a Dahl book the best.
And that leads to a great start to the film. Sophie is introduced well as this mature beyond her years girl, a staple of Dahl books, and when the BFG appears the magic is just there on screen and it is captivating. Watching the giant run through London and coming up with innovative ways to hide from the humans out and about at 3am, seriously this 20ft behemoth is better at stealth than I am at Metal Gear Solid and I’m not OK with that, is breathtaking and a fantastic way to get your movie going. You can’t wait for what’s next and are on the edge of your seat.
Unfortunately, this is where the film stops dead because it has no idea what to do. There are two plots that could lead to an interesting narrative here, but neither are focused on enough to make them interested. For instance, the reason the BFG leaves Giant Country and enters the human world is so he can capture good dreams and spread them to children. However in Giant Country, he is bullied by the other giants because he’s a runt, and as they also love to eat children they are a threat to Sophie’s well being anytime they appear. Both plots are brushed upon, but never developed.
And what that means is that for one and a half hours of this two hour film, it feels as if there is no plot, no forward momentum and no reason to keep on watching. A lot of the running time is wasted on the two chatting together and I’m not opposed to that as this does enhance both of their characters. But you just want the plot to kickstart so something interesting can happen and other than the giants showing up every so often, it simply doesn’t. There’s more time dedicated to very unfunny fart jokes than there is to the actual plot, and it’s very frustrating. And I know the plot of the film is very close to the book but this is why you do change things as books and films are very different things and any medium change needs to acknowledge that to be a success.
It ruins the entire film and what irritates me most is that they waste some great performances. It is pretty obvious that Ruby Barnhill is a Mara Wilson fill in, but we don’t have a Mara Wilson anymore so I’m more than happy with Barnhill’s performance. There is a very thin line for child actors to toe where they can both be precocious and likable, as often it steers into precocious and irritating, and just like Wilson did in Matilda, Barnhill hits it out of the park. Mark Rylance’s motion capture work is brilliant too, showing not just Andy Serkis can do it, and he speaks exactly like I thought the BFG did when I read the book. It’s just a shame they are wasted.
There is a lot to like about The BFG because the film is spectacular to look at and Spielberg’s sensibilities fit perfectly in line with Roald Dahl’s. However they may fit too perfectly as Spielberg is too loyal to the book to make sure there was more of a focus on the plot so the film had the forward momentum to carry us through the two hour running time. This marks out this adaptation as particularly irritating because there is so much brilliant stuff wasted because no one realised that we shouldn’t about ten minutes of our time on the BFG farting/whizpopping. A huge shame.