2016 has been the year in which entitled movie fanboyism has reached its loudest and angriest. Largely in response to the new Ghostbusters, the feeling that all movies should be made for white male nerds in their 20s and 30s has been expressed clearly to a very large audience. Whether a movie is ‘too feminine’ or ‘too childish’, this vocal minority of moviegoers simply cannot fathom why all movies aren’t produced with them as the only target audience. In this context, it’s really wonderful to see The BFG. A Spielberg adaptation of Roald Dahl, written by Melissa Mathison of ET fame, it’s a film for children that never pretends otherwise – funny and joyful, and with a giddy silliness that the kids in my screening of the film really responded to.
Based on Dahl’s classic story of two outsiders, one an insomniac little girl (Sophie, played by 11 year old newcomer Ruby Barnhill) and the other a half-sized giant from Giant Country, The BFG is a very faithful take on its source material. The middle act remains light on plot, allowing Sophie and the eponymous Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) to just explore the wondrous world Spielberg has created while delighting in each other’s company. Watching the two interact makes you realise just how incredible a technical achievement the BFG himself is, managing to look both incredibly lifelike and also just like the Quentin Blake illustrations.
Mark Rylance is a perfect piece of casting for the BFG, the effects team managing to capture his unique spark while he imbues the semi-gibberish language of the giants with gentle warmth and pathos. Managing to be just as good as a dream-catching giant as he was as a Russian spy and Tudor manipulator, The BFG further shows why Spielberg just can’t stop working with Rylance, who has also been cast in his next two films.
Ruby Barnhill proves a wonderful foil to Rylance, again proving that no one can get better performances from child actors than Spielberg. Despite the world she’s interacting with often being largely CG, Barnhill conveys genuine wonder and awe as the young heroine. Sophie is a fantastic protagonist, reflecting all that is great about Dahl’s handling of child characters. She’s capable and articulate, and neither the book nor the film ever talks down to her or, by extension, the kids in the audience. It’s her inquisitiveness and plans that drive the story, from her first discovery of Giant Country, to her negotiations with the Queen (Penelope Wilton) towards the film’s end.
These negotiations need to be made to help Sophie and BFG put an end to the menace of the bigger, more meat-hungry giants who have been snatching up children as snacks. There’s genuine menace to the evil giants, in particular their leader Fleshlumpeater (an outstanding voice performance from Jemaine Clement), despite their total idiocy and crippling fear of getting wet. A scene in which they torment BFG in a manner reminiscent of playground bullying is bound to get every audience member riled up, regardless of age.
Giant Country itself is a truly magical creation, from the BFG’s cave full of antiques, to the tree on which dreams grow. When Sophie chases a runaway dream into a blue-hued mist, Spielberg manages to elicit a feeling of pure childish wonder in a way that only he can. Once these dreams are caught, they’re handed out by the BFG around a London from an indeterminate era (where modern buses collide with 40s-esque technology and a general 80s vibe). However, the dream-giving sequence, as nice as it is, is one of only a very few sequences which feel like they need just a little more panache, given the imagination on show elsewhere.
These little quibbles don’t do much to detract from what is probably 2016’s best family film. There’s easily enough depth and heart to the film to keep the parents engaged, but unlike, say, The Lego Movie, or some of the more ambitious Pixar offerings, The BFG is dead-set on appealing to the kids first and adults second. If you can accept that – i.e. laugh against your better judgement at the Queen’s corgis doing enormous farts – then The BFG is a real treat.