Thereís a secret about children that Steven Spielberg, Melissa Mathison and Roald Dahl have always known ó that no matter how innocent, kids are as capable of understanding darkness as adults, and sometimes even more so. Itís not that itís some completely unacknowledged truth, but it is one that rarely seems to permeate what we consider ďchildrenís entertainmentĒ in any real way. It just makes adults too uncomfortable. Itís also the reason why the under-10 set flocks to Dahl.
A measured embrace of the deep menace in Dahlís words is why this long-time-coming adaptation of his 1982 book The BFG not only succeeds, but shines. Itís not just some pleasant romp into the world of giants. Itís an honest-to-goodness, gut punch of a journey, crackling with heart, uncertainty, and overflowing with all-out wonder.
Thereís really no other way to tell a story about an orphan who is captured by giant and taken to a land crawling with much larger giants who like the taste of human beings, or ďbeensĒ as theyíre called in Dahlís book and here.
The orphan, Sophie, is played by the newcomer Ruby Barnhill. Sporting a Dorothy Hamill haircut and rounded glasses, this little brunette moppet is a delightful revelation who is at turns feisty, lovable and even a little annoying (in a good way). In other words, sheís a believable kid ó a result that Spielberg has been coaxing out of child actors since E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Thankfully Sophie has been taken not by man-eaters, but the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, who was just in Spielbergís Bridge of Spies), who prefers to create dreams for the children of England, not snack on them. But Sophie, who lays awake night after night, saw him gliding through the streets of London and she canít be trusted with the knowledge that giants really do exist, no matter how pure her intentions.
Back in Giant Country, things donít get off to a great start between Sophie and the BFG either. It takes some trials, some scary dreams, some danger, and some skepticism before their friendship becomes real ó but itís worth the build.
Whether youíve read The BFG a thousand times, or havenít in 30 years, or even at all, Sophie and The BFGís impossible bond is bound to break your heart.
Rylanceís BFG is an astonishing meld of real life and CG animation. Itís jarring at first but kids wonít mind, and adults will grow accustomed to it. Thankfully, it somehow stays clear of the uncanny valley. Most importantly, it fits in the context and look of this storybook world, which truly does feel like the page come to life.
There are certain limitations to the form that, you have to imagine, hinder the full range of a Rylance performance, but whatís here is sufficient, even when heís flatulating ó sorry, whizzpopping ó or working his way through Dahlís twisty language.
The only real misstep is when the humans are introduced. Sophie has had enough with the bullying of the other giants and decides, as in the book, to go convince the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) and her helpers (Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall) to help save the children of England from certain death by giant.
The pacing goes haywire and feels like too long and meandering of a diversion in what is already a long movie. Not to mention the fact that a significant portion of this sequence is devoted to whizzpoppers. It just makes you long to return to Giant Country, the BFGís gadget-filled home and the land of dreams.
Thereís a melancholy hanging over the film, too ó that itís Mathisonís final screenwriting credit. Itís also a lovely exit for a woman who always knew to never write down to her audience, children or not.