Movie Review: ‘THE BFG’ – Here be (friendly) monsters

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE BFG |  115 min  | PG
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Bill HaderJemaine Clement, Penelope WiltonRebecca HallRafe Spall

Director Steven Spielberg knows the exact way to get to the heart of every good tale. From films like E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, to the INDIANA JONES franchise, to JURASSIC PARK, his films exude a sense of child-like wonder and expansive imagination. No matter what age they’re targeted toward, his films make us feel like kids again, marveling in slack-jawed awe at the power of fantastical storytelling. His adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel THE BFG is no different. Enthralling, entertaining and enchanting, the sweetly sentimental story is as much a tale about a special friendship as it is a meta comment on the transportive power of filmmaking.

3 AM is the hour at which the city finally winds down, when drunkards leave the pub and darkened corners become even blacker. It’s also the hour at which a giant mysterious figure (played by Mark Rylance) emerges from the shadows to secretly bestow dreams upon the children of London. But after orphaned insomniac Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) catches a glimpse of this Sandman of sorts, his world – and hers – is turned upside down. Fearing she’ll tell someone and endanger him, he whisks her away to his homeland, Giant Country, where the big-eared, wiry gray-haired, huarache-sandled hero identifies himself as the Big Friendly Giant, or “the BFG.” He tells her of his woes – that he’s marginalized and beat up by the other giants because of his small stature and predilection for not eating humans as they do. The pair quickly bond, but the threat of danger soon rears its ugly head when the other bigger bully giants – nine of them to be exact – come a callin’.

Give or take a few tweaks here and there, the film is fairly faithful to Dahl’s source material; however, it does divert in spots from the 1989 animated film. Spielberg reuniting with E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison proves to be a magical formula. The pair fill in the spaces beautifully where we don’t hear Dahl’s prose. In anyone else’s hands, tonal fluctuations would have probably occurred, but not here. True to Disney’s legacy, an effortless balance between light and dark is achieved. Spielberg reinvigorates the visual-based fantasy tale. Its energy – and that of artists like Spielberg and frequent collaborators cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams – is infectious. There’s a deeply affecting sincerity to all the whimsy.

Ruby Barnhill hears a noise in THE BFG. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Ruby Barnhill hears a noise in THE BFG. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

From the Dream Country sequence where we see the pair capturing dreams like twinkling fireflies, to the sequence where the mean giants raid the BFG’s lair looking for Sophie, there are a handful of spectacularly immersive set pieces. Still, the scenes that hit home the most are ones where the BFG crafts his specially-curated dreams (a thinly-veiled metaphor for filmmaking, exemplified later by a dream projected on wall like a movie) and when he poignantly speaks of “Sophie’s dream” (which is like a parent’s dream for their own child). Things like a character getting hit in the nuts and “whizzpopping” (the term the BFG uses for powerful flatulence) serve to entertain the younger crowd (because kids like pratfalls and fart jokes), while a bit about the Reagans entertains their parents.

Perhaps what really sells the story are the performances by its leads. Newcomer Barnhill is a heartrending life-force. She’s spunky, adorable and incredibly intelligent, instinctively playing her character’s vulnerability and nuance without going overboard. Though he’s hidden by CG, we can feel the heart of Rylance’s performance pulsating through the screen. There are scenes where you can see his character’s broken hurt, disappointment and proud bravery in his eyes and mo-capped physicality. We can sense the gravitas of it all. Though I’m not sure if they were ever together on set, their chemistry is apparent and tangible, as their character’s relationship is the driving force.

Despite the vicious giants being on the problematic side (amongst other things, we never feel like they are an imminent threat to invade the human world), and the overarching life lesson lacking a certain “oomph,” THE BFG imparts a lot of good. Little people can do big things. Compassion is key. Intelligence and introspection are better than brawn. Much like he did with E.T. (which came out the same year as Dahl’s novel, and also features an unlikely friendship), Spielberg has created another magical work of art destined to live in the minds and hearts of audiences.

THE BFG opens on July 1.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.

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