The BFG is a pleasant little movie. It’s hardly profound, as it’s based on a much-beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl. But it contains moments of comedy, of daring, of humanity, and at least one scene of genuinely transportive wonder. And since it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s all about as finely-tuned as you could ask for.
The film opens on Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a young girl wandering the enjoyably eerie halls of the London orphanage she calls home. Long after everyone else has gone to bed, she arranges the mail, reads by flashlight, and precociously threatens to call the cops on some drunk rabble rousers out on the cobblestone street.
It’s out on the balcony, well after midnight, that Sophie spots a huge cloaked figure, multiple stories high, sneaking down the London streets. The figure plucks her from her bed through the balcony doors with a monstrous hand, and dashes off with her into the countryside. They journey to a cave dwelling, where Sophie is dumped unceremoniously on a giant-sized wooden table, and finally gets a good look at her captor: the Big Friendly Giant — or “BFG,” as Sophie nickname’s him.
After ascertaining that he will not, in fact, be eating her, Sophie acclimates to the BFG’s world. There are snozzcumbers, the decidedly unpleasant giant-sized vegetables that are the BFG’s sole food source; and frobscottle, a greenish giant drink with bubbles that go down instead of up — generating results that are decidedly more socially fraught than a simple burp. But most remarkable is the BFG’s job, or calling. He captures dreams, then travels to our world and puffs them into the rooms of sleeping humans through a giant metal horn, so that Londoners may enjoy other magical worlds while they rest.
The giant is performed and voiced by Mark Rylance, the brilliantly understated actor who played the Russian agent in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Those who’ve read Dahl’s book can attest that Rylance nails the character: A gentle and lovable lunkhead, fiercely loyal and unflaggingly decent, who speaks in a garbled version of English peppered with silly reinventions of various words. (“Snozzcumbers” and “frobscottle” are just the beginning.) All of which makes him the perfect foil to Sophie’s strong-willed intelligence, and her clipped and authoritative British accent.
Visually, the BFG is mainly computer animation and motion capture: He’s gangly, big-eared and spikey-haired, of an old-yet-indeterminate age, and you can catch hints of Rylance’s expressions and sly grin in the giant’s features. It’s not quite photorealistic, but then that’s not what Spielberg’s going for. Instead, the CGI allows him to truly shoot this colossal world and its characters from Sophie’s viewpoint, in the way an actual human-sized camera might capture it.
Unfortunately, the BFG is not the only one of his kind, and the other giants are decidedly unfriendly. They’re a thoroughly unintelligent and unpleasant bunch, led by the loathsome Bloodbottler (Bill Hader). They travel to the human world not to sow dreams, but to pluck children from their beds and devour them.
I’d honestly forgotten most of the plot since reading the book when I was young, so it was fun rediscovering the one very big turn. It makes absolute and total sense from a child’s perspective. And it’s a reminder of the remarkable trust young people can have in the good faith and competency of adult authority figures, and what a better world it would be if we actually lived up to that trust. The twist also makes inspired use of Penelope Wilton, the actress many will recognize as Isobel Crawley from Downton Abbey.
The first half of the film sets a lackadaisical pace, as Spielberg takes every opportunity to bask in the BFG’s world. Most astonishing is a journey through a magical pond to a nighttime world of mist and trees and floating light, where the BFG harvests his dreams. Then there’s his dream storage cellar, hidden behind an underground waterfall, filled with pulley systems and other gadgets. Endless shelves of glass jars as big as Sophie hold the dreams, which flit and morph in endless colors, briefly revealing the the stories they contain. This is also where the giant mixes dreams to create new hybrids — a skill that comes in handy when that plot twist arrives and the film kicks into a more adventurous mode.
The climax, I must confess, feels almost perfunctory. But that’s because The BFG is not really about its plot, which is as it should be. It’s about Sophie and the BFG and the quiet friendship they build. It’s about the endearingly ridiculous dialogue. And it’s about the dazzling visual possibilities of the imaginary world Dahl created. Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison know where the strengths of this material lie, and they bring those strengths forth with control and craft. Meanwhile, the score by John Williams proves that, even at age 84, the maestro still has a little magic left in him.
I’m almost 35 myself now, so I’m not sure I can speak with any authority on what what the kids are into these days. But by the end of The BFG, the child in me was definitely smiling.