Steven Spielberg | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & India / English | PG / PG
The writer/director team behind E.T. reunite for another tale of a young kid befriending a strangely-proportioned otherworldly creature who can’t quite speak English properly and has an acronym for a name. This one, of course, is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, here rendered into live-action — or, for a large part, realistic computer animation — by director Steven Spielberg.
If you don’t know the story, it concerns insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who one night spots a 24ft giant outside her window. Wary of her informing the rest of the world of his existence, he snatches her up and carries her off to giant land. Despite Sophie’s fears, he doesn’t eat her, because he’s actually the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, motion captured) — but his fellow giants are a different story. Led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, also motion captured), they bully the comparatively tiny BFG and are a constant threat to Sophie’s life, so she concocts a plan, which involves a trip to see the Queen (Penelope Wilton).
For all its CGI — and, in creating a fantastical other-world adjacent to our own, there is a lot — much about The BFG feels pleasantly traditional, almost like a throwback to kids’ movies of a couple of decades past. This is partly the re-teaming of Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, I suppose, but perhaps also the decision to retain the novel’s original 1982 setting. Not that you’d know it for most of the running time, until the Queen makes some telephone calls to “Nancy and Ronnie” (Reagan) and “Boris” (presumably Yeltsin, though that means someone’s got their eras mixed up); references that, coming quite near the end of the film, made me pause in the realisation that it wasn’t just set today (the reference to Boris made me assume the Queen was phoning our foreign secretary).
More than dated references, though, the throwback feel is thanks to the pace. I’d hesitate to call The BFG slow, but it’s certainly gentle for a good long while. I don’t think it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, but a little extra speed early on, bringing the luxuriant two-hour running time down closer to the 90-minute mark, might’ve been beneficial. There’s certainly magic and wonder to be found throughout, which are very important aspects of a story like this, but I do wonder if kids might get a bit fidgety nonetheless, which would destroy the effect.
There is a lot to admire, however. The production design is superb, the giants’ environment full of stuff pilfered from the human world and re-appropriated into useful things — a ship for a (water)bed, for example, or a road sign for a tray; in one sequence, cars and trucks become roller skates. It’s all realised with startling detailed CGI. Okay, you’re not going to mistake the giants for upsized real humans (which kinda makes me long for a Hook-era version of the film, when they would’ve done it all for real with optical effects), but look at the small details — the texture of the giants’ skin, for example — and it looks phenomenal.
More importantly, the acting is pitched perfectly. Clement and his cohorts manage to be both menacing and comical by turns, Wilton brings easy class to the Queen, and Rafe Spall has an amusing little supporting role as a palace footman. However, Rebecca Hall is utterly wasted in a strangely nothing-y part as the Queen’s assistant — I can only presume this was either one of those “I love the book so will take any role” situations or one of those “my part was mostly cut” situations.
But the real stars are the two leads. Ruby Barnhill was the result of a months-long search for the perfect Sophie and it was worth the effort. Called upon to be confident, scared, awed, and ingenious, Barnhill’s performance is precisely calibrated — “subtle” would perhaps be overselling it, but she lacks the histrionics you get from weak child actors. She’s overall charming, which is important in engaging us in the relationship between her and the BFG. In the giant role, Mark Rylance is, of course, sublime. He may have been recreated in the computer, but all of his personality shines through, his expressions and mannerisms both believable and familiar if you’ve seen him in his corporeal form. It’s one of the best-yet advocacies of so-called “performance capture” (where the actor’s whole performance is captured by those grey jumpsuits with little dots on, as opposed to just “motion capture” where it’s only their physical moves being digitised and supplemented by animators — both are the same process really, it’s just someone coined a different term to indicate when more of the actor’s own work is retained).
Considering the level of challenge The BFG clearly presented to Spielberg (in the special features he talks about how at times he was unsure how to make the movie, with all the tough requirements of different scales, etc; he and his team actually spent a whole summer making the movie in previsualisation before they did it for real the year after), it’s something of a shame that it’s destined to be regarded as a minor work in his canon. I’m not going to argue it deserves a greater status among his venerable output, but it would be a shame for it to go ignored because of that.
The BFG is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of this week.