Like many people in the world, Roald Dahl has been one of my favourite authors during my childhood. His twisted sense of humour, his unique whimsical touch and its warm-hearted tone have delighted kids as well as adults all around the world and even the film adaptations of his works have all been well-regarded by critics as well as audiences.
So when you have critically-acclaimed director Steven Spielberg who has been involved in such children’s classics like E.T – The Extra Terrestrial, Gremlins, The Goonies and others; working alongside Melissa Mathison (R.I.P) who was the screenwriter for E.T, you can understand that I was hyped to see this movie. Does it stand alongside the best Roald Dahl film adaptations like Fantastic Mr Fox and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or will end up being a disappointment?
Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie, a steadfast orphan who suffers from insomnia and stays up every night at 3am to see the wondrous occurrences outside her window. She then sees an elderly giant and it suddenly kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country. The two start off in amusing conflicts and then slowly befriend each other to the point where Sophie names the giant as The BFG (Mark Rylance). When Sophie finds out that The BFG is a victim of bullying among his own kind as well as their evil intent, Sophie and The BFG set out on a magical and thrilling adventure to capture the evil, man-eating giants who have been invading the human world.
The first thing that struck me about this film was how old-fashioned it feels. The pacing, the character interactions, the whimsy and the warm tone; it all adds up to a film that stands out among other family films, which these days are incredibly fast-paced and visually jarring at times. It is refreshing to see a film like this these days and that is thanks to the talented cast and crew. Spielberg and Mathison perfect their storytelling chops with many great visuals and with very little exposition while composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky adds their magic touch with a beautiful score and cinematography, accentuating the magical wonder of the settings, especially when you see Dream Country. The film is also surprisingly faithful to the source material, from the third act involving the Queen of England to whole lines of dialogue straight from the book; Roald Dahl fans will certainly cherish how the cast and crew take the story to heart.
The cast also certainly help make the world more immersive, with Ruby Barnhill being an absolute joy as Sophie. Convincingly brave and in awe of what she sees, it is a great debut performance that I hope would reward her with greater parts. Mark Rylance is a perfect choice for The BFG, as he seems to have the time of his life, playing the joyful and dramatic sides of his character to a T. He even sells his admittedly ridiculous lines of dialogue and makes all of them amusing. The two have a great chemistry together, whether they are bickering about how to pronounce words or bonding over their hopes and dreams. While the rest of the supporting cast are fine in their parts (with Jermaine Clement and Penelope Wilton as stand-outs), it is Barnhill and Rylance that the audience will remember fondly.
As for flaws, the running time of the film is too long, especially when you know the source material is not particularly a novel-size story. Scenes tend to go on for too long and it can bore some. Also, since the story is really faithful to the book, adults may think the story can be a bit too infantile, especially when it reaches the gloriously ridiculous third act. But what slightly bothered me was that I did not feel that emotionally invested into the story as much as I could have been. The villains of the film (involving Jermaine Clement, Bill Hader and others) don’t really feel like much of a threat beyond their stereotypical bullying roles, and it does take some of its dramatic thrust out the film. And that also includes the lack of character insight of Sophie herself, when we do not really see how the orphanage life has affected her, leaving her arc a little ill-defined.
But overall, The BFG is an entertaining and magical film that will certainly delight children of all ages as well as Roald Dahl fanatics such as myself. Does anyone have a bottle of frobscottle, because I want to propose a toast to the cast and crew of The BFG!
Review score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The BFG screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. It releases in Australian cinemas on June 30th.