Steven Spielberg teaming up with the House of Mouse to adapt for the big screen a beloved children’s novel – one by an author who is the antithesis of sugary sentiments the famed American studio and lauded director thrive on – at first looks like an odd combo. Roald Dahl’s writing, hugely popular with kids even today, is primed with the sort of transgressive themes Disney might find improper or not quite representative of their homespun values.
It’s nice to report, then, that The BFG has come to the big screen with its darker aspects intact. This is after all a story about Stockholm syndrome featuring children eaten by cannibal monsters from another realm. As the BFG cautions his new human friend, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), kids taste like strawberries and cream to them.
The more outré subtexts and meanings have been toned down a little bit, but what’s really interesting to see is how Dahl’s writing has kept a filmmaker known for displays of gross sentimentality in check. In fact, it’s the most emotionally restrained this director has been in quite some time. Not that The BFG doesn’t attempt to pull the heartstrings. It does. What’s great to see is that none of it is excessive or trite.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that Spielberg’s own work is filled with shocking imagery and disquieting moments. He’s the guy who gave us melting Nazis in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), served up chilled monkeys brains as haute cuisine in Temple Of Doom (1984), staged one of the creepiest alien abductions in cinema history (little Barry’s kidnapping in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1977) and he wrote and produced the 1982 horror classic, Poltergeist.
Given the director’s back catalogue, you don’t need to be a genius to draw parallels to the brave folk who hid Jews from the Gestapo during the scene where the nasty giants smash up BFG’s crib because they’ve gotten a whiff of Sophie. It might come as something of a surprise, but Dahl and Spielberg are kindred spirits; The BFG is a movie that has managed the feat of being very much a distinctly Roald Dahl experience and a quintessentially Spielbergian affair.
A mixture of live-action shooting combined with the latest advances in computer animation, Melissa Mathison’s script takes from both the novel and the 1989 British TV movie, but also brings its own changes without feeling out of step. The anachronistic production design features a chocolate box version of London and the air of the film feels as informed by Victorian author Charles Dickens as it does the world of Harry Potter (John Williams’s score furthers the Potter vibe).
Like the very best directors, Spielberg uses special effects in service of the story and not the other way around. The CGI landscapes look terrific and the colours pop and sparkle. Whether its dreams manifested as balls of energy, which flutter and whizz around in ballets of light, or the incredible-looking make believe world of Giant Country.
Another ace up the film’s sleeve is Mark Rylance as the eponymous gentle giant. The level of detail that’s gone into the character and the motion capture performance is absolutely extraordinary. Rylance is nothing short of a delight; his West Country lilt, malapropisms and Carroll-like nonsense words are all seriously endearing.
There is one bone to pick, however. The narrative pacing is a bit on the slow side. In the age of fast and furious blockbusters, the unhurried plotting might feel a tad old-fashioned, or even padded out. This is a minor quibble, really, because The BFG is candy for the eyes and a beautifully imagined tale of two outsiders finding their place in the world.