As we enter the world of Steven Speilberg‘s The BFG, an adaptation written by Melissa Mathison, who penned the screenplays of other childhood favourites such as E.T. and Indian in the Cupboard, we find ourselves in a slightly different place than Roald Dahl‘s original classic portrayed.
Set in the London of a slightly modern yet unknown era (there are helicopters and Ford Anglia’s alongside wooden children’s toys and button-down nightwear) orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is up way past her bedtime, sorting through orphanage post and locking up after a somewhat irresponsible matron. As witching hour approaches, she spies a cloak-wrapped giant through the wafting curtains of her dormitory window and is consequently snatched, so as to not snitch to the whole world about the aforementioned giant and his kind. They both then bound back to Giant Country where Sophie learns the lay of the land and why the band of somewhat larger giants must be avoided at all costs. We discover that our cloaked giant is the black sheep of the bunch, as well as the only vegetarian, and has been with us since the beginning of time, collecting and distributing dreams in the land of ‘human beans’.
Through the magic of CGI animation, Giant Country is quite beautiful along with its inhabitants, as is the Big Friendly Giant’s cave of dreams and Dream Country itself. Yet somewhere among the swirling colours and dramatic lighting, some of Dahl‘s original magic is lost. The magic of his storytelling lay in the darkness of the giants’ world, in the fear of ‘what should not be’ and in the gruesome facts that Dahl never withdrew from but, above all, in the fact that we as humans, and more importantly children, can overcome the impossible. In all of his children’s novels, Roald Dahl never talked down to his audience – he presented his world as it was and we experienced the same horrors and triumphs alongside James and his peach, the Boy against the Witches and Sophie and the Giants. He was never afraid to make us feel frightened, and when the monsters were defeated and goodness triumphed, we felt safe in our world again.
This lack of darkness results in a very kid-friendly film, one that doesn’t even span into being generally family friendly, like your average Disney or Pixar tend to be. With sugar-coated fantasy and zero adult-directed humour, the infamous giant Flesh-lump-eater is more Grawpish than Ogre-ish and even the silly Whizzpopping and word-muddling elements are rendered juvenile under Speilberg‘s direction. British comedy, with its wry, often cynical delivery, even in its lightest form, can have a tendency to go over international heads and may not seem to have a place among children’s entertainment. Yet the combination of children’s fantasy cinema of the ’90s had the dark edge needed to fully portray Dahl‘s stories, as seen in 1996’s Matilda and The Witches in 1990. So, maybe today’s productions just aren’t interested in opening kids up to that kind of horror – never did me any harm! – which is really a shame as that kind of brush with the harsh realities of the world is one of the main factors of what makes Roald Dahl‘s work so special.
Having said that, The BFG is full of heart and may well become a family favourite to newcomers of Dahl adaptations. It is an enjoyable two hours if not breathtakingly exciting. It seems to try really hard from the beginning to get you to feel the magic, more so through its cinematography and John Williams score instead of through the story and characters themselves. Mark Rylance‘s Big Friendly Giant is bumbling enough to be loving though possibly not as wise as Dahl‘s, and the bond that he and Sophie develop is true to the original. Mathison‘s version moves slightly away from the novel in terms of storyline, developing the BFG’s previous adventures in dream catching and despite Ruby Barnhill‘s very annoying depiction of Sophie early on, she proves to be strong in heart as well as head.
All in all, The BFG is not a bad Saturday afternoon outing for the under 12s, just don’t expect to be quite as captivated as they may be.
by Aoife Fealy