Given that Steven Spielberg's been at the helm of so many childhood classics that his name has become synonymous with nostalgia, it's kind of amazing that he's never made a Disney movie yet. And yet that was absolutely the case before The BFG, his adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved novel about a young girl and the big friendly giant she befriends. The combination, which includes late E.T. writer Melissa Mathison, proves to be every bit as magical we could have hoped. The BFG is Spielberg at the height of his powers, crafting a story that will whisk kids and adults alike into a fantastical world that is tall on heart.
The film is built almost entirely on the wonderfully expressive performances by recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance (of Spielberg's Bridge of Spies) and newcomer Ruby Barnhill. The 12-year-old actress plays Sophie, a spirited London orphan whose insomnia causes her to spot the Big Friendly Giant tip-toeing through the empty streets late at night. Moments later his giant paw is plucking Sophie from her bed and carrying her off to Giant Country, a hidden place on the outer edges of Great Britain. For obvious reasons she fears being chomped by the big-eared, soft-spoken giant whose vocabulary consists of jumbled gibberish and Giant slang. But it turns out the BFG, the name she ultimately gives him, has no interest in eating her. He eats snozzcumbers, the rotten, stinking vegetable that grows on the island. He also drinks frobscottle, a green drink with inverted fizziness that causes the most delightful of putrid farts. The BFG lives up to his moniker, but he's still the runt of the litter compared to the other giants, who munch on "human beans" and have names like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), and Bonecruncher. They bully the BFG at every chance they get, and eventually begin to sniff out Sophie's presence.
The vast majority of the film takes place there in Giant Country, mostly in the BFG's home which is full of all sorts of wonders. He's an inventor with contraptions littered about everywhere, and a giant pirate ship for a bed. The film's already impressive visuals jump a notch when we're introduced to the BFG's laboratory, where he keeps dreams, all glowing and will o' the wispy, bottled up and locked away. That's his job, going out at night to Dream Country to capture the good dreams and dispense them to the world, or to keep the menacing red dreams locked away where they can do no harm. Every place we're transported is brimming with visual splendor and teeming with boundless energy. If only there were more places to visit because the story does tend to drag a bit after being in the BFG's home for so long. We begin to feel as if we've been kidnapped and locked away in Giant Country, as well.
Fortunately, Rylance and Barnhill are terrific together and imbue their characters with so much spirit that we can't help but fall for them. Rylance is a veteran performer who had been working a long time before Spielberg "found" him and it's no wonder he seems reluctant to part from the actor now. Barnhill continues the tradition of unforgettable child performances in Spielberg films. Her Sophie is at all times caring, mischievous, and a little bit dishonest, but she's supremely loyal to her new friend and willing to risk her life for his. It's the BFG who is in the most danger here, not her, an unexpectedly rewarding dynamic that pays off in the final scenes. There's also a good deal of cheeky humor that comes about when the BFG is introduced to the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), who is promptly introduced to frobscottle and the gastrointestinal relief it provides.
The BFG is a nearly-perfect little bedtime story, and as such it lacks the dark subversive tone of some of Dahl's other works, particularly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It's rare nowadays to have a family film exist simply to kindle the imagination but that's what The BFG does, ensuring Dahl's classic will be remembered on the page and the screen.
Rating: 4 out of 5