It stands for “Big Friendly Giant,” and though he’s older than history can tell, this is the only name he has. The redundant nomenclature is care of an insomniac orphan who sees something she isn’t meant to see and that changes her life — and the world. On the surface The BFG is a simple yarn for children. However it also presents opportunities for audiences of all ages to look at their positions in the world and decide whether or not things are as they should be. That this very British movie should come out at a time when Britain is facing some real, potentially history-changing turmoil is clearly a coincidence, but a serendipitous one.
Based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, The BFG the movie follows the tale of a little girl named Sophie, played by 12-year-old newcomer Ruby Barnhill. Sophie’s parents died when she was even younger, leaving her in the care of a negligent caretaker, Mrs. Clonkers. Very little time is spent addressing the nature of Clonker’s shortcomings, though we see Sophie locking up the house at night, making sure the clocks are on time, and telling off the loud drunkards who stumble out of the nearby pub at 3 a.m. It is during such an exchange that she notices an overturned trash bin, and then the giant hand that sets it right.
Though she doesn‘t know it yet, the hand belongs to the only non-cannibalistic giant in the world. Still, she’s seen too much, so that hand comes through the open dormitory doors and snatches Sophie from her bed — blanket, book and all — and whisks her away. Sophie is carried hundreds of miles from London, but after a bumpy start and a couple of failed escape attempts, the little girl and the big, gentle, elderly looking chap develop an understanding and friendship that bridges the gap between their sizes.
Her new friend collects good dreams from “dream country” that he delivers to sleeping children. It’s a lifestyle we soon see is endangered by the nine other inhabitants of “giant country,” a dreadful, quarrelsome group of child-eaters who are much bigger and much stronger than the BFG. (This group’s leader is Fleshlumpeater, played with great baritone menace by Jemaine Clement.) They just want to find the children and chow down. What the BFG eats instead will bring a knowing smile to those well versed in the Dahl lexicon.
Sophie witnesses the bullying the BFG endures, the lack of privacy and respect for his work, the utter disregard the other giants show for him and declares that something must be done. There is a lot to be said about bullying in this scene. There’s the question of how you handle it when you’re so much smaller and so very outnumbered. There’s the idea that no matter what you should try to stand up for yourself, or at least protect yourself. There’s the notion that the good guy will always be outnumbered and outmuscled, and the insistence that even then one can triumph over adversity with a little cleverness and cunning.
What follows is a child’s take on international cooperation, the triumph of good against evil, punishment of the chronically wicked, and the delightful effects of fizzy drinks.
The first half of the film is quite slow and, despite several attempts to grab the viewer with perspective tricks, lacks the energy one would expect in a Steven Spielberg movie. The trudging pacing is offset somewhat by the gorgeous, luscious scenery and attention to detail with respect to the titular character. The BFG, played by Oscar winner and Shakespearean actor extraordinaire Mark Rylance, bears many of Rylance’s features. From his sloping eyebrows to his sort of tight-lipped half-mumble, character artists have created an expressive and mostly realistic-looking figure. In close-up you can see pores in his skin, micro-wrinkles, wild hairs growing out of seemingly unexpected places for what is, for all intents and purposes, a high-level cartoon.
Where the filmmakers have succeeded in creating a distinct look and feel, that slow half made me question how members of the young target audience would sit through it. Kids won’t necessarily be captivated by the technological expertise. They want a good, entertaining story. And this is one; it just takes some time to get there.
A series of thoroughly silly scenes set in Buckingham palace kick things up to a really enjoyable pace. Laden with flatulence humor and sight gags, these scenes will no doubt tickle younger viewers’ funny bones and keep them giggling. These same scenes also make some interesting statements about acceptance, inclusion, trust and open-mindedness — something that perhaps we don’t see enough of these days. Penelope Wilton and Rafe Spall make a charming comedic duo as queen and footman, and no doubt kids will find the royal corgis utterly hilarious.
As with so many of Dahl’s stories, the ending is a mixed bag of dark and light, and it doesn’t deny the truth or strength of a child’s feelings and loyalty. It’s a mostly happy end, just tinged with sadness, but that may be more evident to the parents than their children. All in all, it’s a fine translation of a beloved classic and a beautiful look into a world of pure imagination.
The BFG opens nationwide July 1, 2016.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Films.