Spielberg’s BFG (2016) Review

The BFG doesn’t waste any time getting us into the action. We are barely introduced to young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who is awake at 3am in her dilapidated London orphanage. After hearing a noise outside, she goes to the balcony and sees something amazing. She spots a giant around 30 feet tall shrouded with a cloak to keep himself hidden. As they meet eyes, she runs back inside to hide under her blanket, and we see a large hand come through the window. Less than 10 minutes into the movie, Sophie is already being whisked away to Giant Country where the giant tells her that he intends to keep her for the remainder of her life.

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Lucky for Sophie, the giant who snatched Sophie away is a Big Friendly Giant who sets off to Dream Country every night to collect dreams and spread them to households while bottling the nightmares away in his lab. He is indeed big, but as we soon learn, the other 9 giants are as much as twice as large as him and they aren’t so friendly. They eat humans, and children are some of their favorite snacks. With imaginative names like Meatdripper, Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, and Gizzardgulper that could only be concocted by Dahl. I was disappointed that Mathison and Spielberg made these supposedly menacing creatures into giant ogres who pose dwarf-sized threats.

Still, they are also pretty mean to the BFG as he is the runt of the giant community. Sophie sees his abuse from the other giants, and lucky for the BFG, Sophie is brave, headstrong and passionately inquisitive and intent on discovering as much about this newfound world as she can. He shows Sophie a drink called frobscottle which is made from snozzcumber that’s actually quite tasty and due to its inverted fizziness, produces whizz-popping. This joyous pseudonym for flatulence gives us a wonderfully sophomoric and whimsical scene set inside Buckinghmam Palace.

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The BFG sees director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison reunite for the first time since The BFG was published by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda) in 1982 when they joined forces for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. While I don’t think that this film will prove to be masterpiece that film is, The BFG is a sweet, simple, and technologically impressive adaptation of the beloved children’s book. Having read The BFG to my kids and taken them to the theater to see the film, they will attest that it is an extremely faithful adaptation. The wit and wisdom on display throughout is undeniable. It is overflowing with honest emotion and genuine insights, while being painted with some of Dahl’s characteristic kid-friendly dread.

It’s easy to forget how dark the author’s stories could get. Dahl understood that children could understand complex issues, even if adults don’t feel that they are prepared to. Poverty, the loss of a parent, sickness, and danger are par for the course. Things can get pretty scary, but Dahl is always able to find the emotional truth and push readers big and small through the peril, no matter how extreme it becomes.

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Spielberg and Mathison take a cue from Dahl here and never dwell on the gruesome. We see Sophie’s fear transform into heroism as she seeks to aid her in new friend in making sure the other giants stop terrorizing him and stop their nightly hunts to find new “human beans” to munch on. In this case, these man gobbling cannibals are scary and terrible, but in Sophie’s eyes this is an obstacle a kid can overcome. So while my kids may not battle literal giants, facing this sort of fear is an essential part of growing up. The life lessons they gain from standing their ground against the things that threaten to “eat them alive” will positively shape their lives going forward.

It’s a very enjoyable and rich film, even if it isn’t quite up to the high standard of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory of which Dahl himself did not approve. Fresh off his Oscar win for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance is superb as the titular giant. His turn as the BFG, through a combination of live action, motion capture, and voice acting, is filled with emotional nuance. There is a timidity to the BFG that is slowly unraveled by Sophie’s inquisitiveness and sincerity. Rylance handles this transformation with poise, making him a quiet hero whose actions speak louder than any of the whimsical words that stumble out of his mouth.

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Whether one is a fan of the book or has never read it, The BFG is a delightful fantasy of which the film makers should be proud. The end result is an enchanting journey of imagination that made me feel like I just caught a golden phizzwizard.

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