Film adaptations of storyteller Roald Dahl’s work have always been rather hit or miss; his quirky sense of humor, fanciful stories, and typically one-dimensional characters are difficult to translate effectively to the screen. Moreover, Dahl’s original tales are often punctuated by a morbidity akin to Grimm’s fairy tales and foreign to modern children’s stories, and are thus difficult to recreate convincingly as family film fare. Nonetheless, many other quirky geniuses, like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, have tried their hands at adapting his work, from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Matilda to Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Now, The BFG, perhaps the most endearing of Dahl’s tales, gets its turn at the hands of Hollywood’s moguls, in a summer blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg. And Spielberg’s BFG neither departs wildly from nor adheres slavishly to Dahl’s story, making it about as enjoyable and faithful an adaptation of the book as could possibly have been hoped.
From the start, the film’s obvious crowning achievement is certainly the BFG himself. The homely giant is a masterpiece of animation, with his giant wiggling ears and his gangly legs balancing out his soulful eyes and kindly wrinkled face. His most lovable trait—his mixed up way of speaking—is reproduced here exactly as in the book, voiced to perfection by Mark Rylance. Loping about the London streets at night, hooded and cloaked, with a bag of dreams and a trumpet to blow them into the rooms of sleeping children, the BFG is a combination of mythical creature and homely secret philanthropist. Easily keeping pace with the larger-than-life BFG is Ruby Barnhill, absolutely perfect as the intrepid and practical bookworm orphan named Sophie. Barnhill captures Sophie’s bravery and obvious precociousness (how many ten year olds typically read Nicholas Nickleby?) with innocent and unaffected charm.
Yet it is the chemistry between the appealingly articulate Sophie and the fumbling giant that arguably keeps the film afloat in Dahl’s at times ridiculous plotline. The bravehearted and intelligent little girl is a fitting companion and counterpoint to the misspeaking, kind-hearted Big Friendly Giant; like him, she is something of an outcast, awake alone at night. He treats her with gentleness and kindness, and she in turn gives him respect and encouragement. While at times their relationship may wander into the saccharine, Sophie’s youthful boldness and the BFG’s tender, grandfatherly care for her makes their friendship blossom onscreen, even when threatened by the destructive invasions of the BFG’s home by the oafish, man-eating giants like Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater.
In this unlikely friendship, moral themes regarding courage, transgression, and reparation make an appearance. The BFG explains his laborious work of collecting dreams and sending them to sleeping children as his way of “giving,” when the other giants do nothing but take. He calls it “the best I can do,” indicating a commitment to doing what is right, despite the tremendous difficulty involved. Additionally, the BFG’s remarkable meekness and benevolence stand in sharp contrast with the other giants’ blustering, violent bullying. When the plucky Sophie’s creative courage and determined sense of justice are added to the mix, the two make an admirable and noble pair. As in Dahl’s book, the villains get their righteous and deliciously well-deserved comeuppance, although the ending departs slightly from the book in removing all giants, good and bad, from regular contact with the human world—arguably less satisfying than Dahl’s original resolution.
The film lavishly replicates the details of Dahl’s story (such as the oozy vegetables snozzcumbers in all their revolting nastiness). More fantastical elements are brought to life here with loving attention, from the nine gruesome cannibal giants to the dreams the BFG gives to sleeping children. The most imaginative portion of Dahl’s original work involved the BFG’s capture, labeling, and concocting of dreams, and here the film comes through with (literally) flying colors, in some visual feats which will warm the hearts of the book’s most devoted fans. In Sophie’s visit to Dream Country, tantalizing, glowing, firefly-like dreams float about and gather like dewdrops on the leaves of a gigantic tree; the aurora-colored sequence is a true tribute to the book.
The film also fills in spectacular visual details the book didn’t provide (particularly in the BFG’s home), some of which merely overwhelm the viewer, raise questions, or muddy the simplicity of Dahl’s story. For no clear reason, for instance, the cannibalistic giants have a fear of water and live in a trash-heap collection of cars and Ferris wheels, while the BFG sleeps in an abandoned ship. But for the most part the detailed setting, from the warm lights and foggy streets of London to the lopsided cottage of the BFG, creates a storybook-like atmosphere which complements the fanciful tale.
Spielberg apparently couldn’t resist inserting a handful of strange and unnecessary additions, like the tragic backstory of a little boy who lived with the BFG before the fouler giants hunted him out and devoured him, putting a dark twist on Dahl’s lighthearted treatment of the morbid topic of giants who eat children. Likewise, the film inserts a puzzling segment where the BFG temporarily returns Sophie to the orphanage because he does not want the other giants to eat her, only to take her back when she supposedly proves she is brave enough by blindly jumping off a balcony. Although they do not drastically detract from the overall charm of the film, these two additions in particular mar the internal logic of the story in ways that might bother attentive viewers.
Pacing overall is restrained, retaining with only minor diversions the simple and unhurried plot arc of Dahl’s original story. While some viewers, accustomed to the non-stop action increasingly typical in children’s films, may find the middle portion of the movie a bit slow, there is something to be said for the film’s childlike approach to the events in Sophie’s world. The orphan Sophie in Dahl’s book wants to go to the queen of England to acquire her help in getting rid of the man-eating giants who raid children’s beds at night; and the film allows her to do exactly that, without pretense or mishap or twist. Despite a handful of jokes that will go over children’s heads (like the obvious setting in the Reagan era, with the queen phoning the White House and telling Nancy to wake up Ronnie), this is clearly a children’s movie, and it plays well for its intended audience.
While marked by a number of minor flaws, none render it less enjoyable or engaging as a children’s summer film; unlike many, it remains refreshingly free of agenda or deviance. For its convincing animation of the BFG himself, Ruby Barnhill’s spunky and clever Sophie, and their colorful escapades together, Spielberg’s enchanting BFG is as perfect an adaptation as is ever likely to hit the big screen.
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