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A review of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’

By Douglas Davidson

June 30, 2016

There is barely a bookshelf that has not held the weight of the words of Roald Dahl. Though his narratives are ultimately simple, the worlds in which Dahl tells his stories is so large that it challenges the imagination to keep up. Unfortunately, this is also the greatest obstacle as the translation from imagination to live-action doesn’t always fare well as we’ve seen through various efforts to bring Dahl’s works to the big screen.

The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg with a script adapted by Melissa Mathison, tells the story of the orphan girl, Sophie, and her adventure in Giant Country with the Big Friendly Giant. After catching Sophie spying on him as he works his way through London, the BFG grabs her and takes her to back to his home before she can alert the public to the presence of giants. Quickly, Sophie learns that the BFG is an outcast like her, shunned by his fellow giants for being a vegetarian and trying to protect humans, while they prefer to hunt children in the night for snacking. In a tale about friendship and family, Sophie and the BFG devise a plan to stop the giants from eating more children throughout the world.

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At its core, The BFG is a story about two lonely individuals finding their place, together, in the world. Sophie (relative newcomer Ruby Barnhill) spends her nights prowling the orphanage due to insomnia, while the BFG (Mark Rylance) spends his nights blowing dreams into the minds of sleepers around the world. For their parts, Barnhill and Rylance are utterly convincing in their respective roles. As children can be, Barnhill oscillates quickly between fear and admiration as she delves into a world she never dreamed to be real. Rylance is charming as the titular BFG, capturing the innocence and pure love that radiates from pages of Dahl’s own story. Their performances are honest and their relationship believable, yet it’s not enough to keep the narrative engaging. The BFG is not an action-packed tale, but, with its 117-minute runtime, does need to feel as though something is happening without relying on fart jokes to reach the audience. Because of this sense of slow momentum, moments meant to inspire laughter or a bit of sadness failed to elicit a vocal reaction from the audience. The silence was both telling and deafening.

Similarly, the visuals run into an odd dichotomy as they both invoke the wonder of classic Disney films while simultaneously failing miserably to maintain the illusions of magic. To his credit, for his first foray into Disney films, Spielberg clearly took great pains to recreate the book for the big screen and that’s a monumental task all by itself. From the streets of London where the story begins and all the way to Giant Country where BFG and his fellow giants live, everything looks and feels absolutely real in all its majestic splendor.  Spielberg has always  possessed a natural talent for grounding his stories in tangibility, even when dealing with elements of fantasy.

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However, once the two worlds collide, the CGI technology can’t maintain the illusion. Each time the human and giant worlds are shown on-screen together, it quickly becomes apparent that the actors, on both sides, are engaging with a green screen, not their fellow actors. Though a little off-putting in smaller scenes, this separation becomes even more exaggerated and distracting, especially toward the story’s end. Reportedly, Spielberg decided against using camera tricks and larger sets in favor of green screen and CGI to convey the enormous size discrepancy between humans and giants. Perhaps Spielberg was looking to emulate Disney classics like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Mary Poppins in his first outing with the Mouse House, but it doesn’t invoke nostalgia so much as dispel any suspension of disbelief.

In the end, Spielberg and Mathison created a perfect representation of what The BFG is– a quiet tale of two loners finding company– though it’s slow pacing and technical issues make it hard to stay engaged. There are strong moments where it succeeds in instilling wonder, but those moments get reduced when the audience can see the cracks in the spectacle. The BFG is far from perfect, but thankfully it’s not completely devoid of Dahl’s delightful inspiration.

Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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