Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall
Director: Steven Spielberg
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a small English girl in an orphanage. One night while she is up very late, she hears strange sounds and looks outside the window and sees a large creature, a 20 feet giant (Mark Rylance) who, upon realising that he’s been seen, snatches the young girl and takes her to Giant Country, a hidden land of dream and magic. The Big Friendly Giant or BFG as Sophie calls him turns out to be the smallest and kindest in a group of immortal giants who eat children. The BFG hides Sophie from them always staying a step ahead of their predators. The screenplay for BFG, adapted from Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, was written by Melissa Mathison who passed away in 2015, but whose credits include ET the Extra Terrestrial, directed by Spielberg.
As such The BFG greatly resembles the tone and feel of ET and other films by the director that deal with children including AI: Artificial Intelligence and his underrated War Horse. What makes The BFG a little different is the fact that it’s a film which goes deep rather than wide. The other movies tended to go for setting and special effects to make its larger point, whereas the focus on this film is entirely the relationship between the child and the giant. Large portions of the film feature only these two characters, and most of the special effects rests on subtle distortions of perspective.
The BFG is a giant to the little girl but a runt among his other giants, who dangle him by his feet with one hand and bully him. Getting a correct sense of scale is half the fun in watching this film. A particularly striking moment is when the giant grabs Sophie in the palm, and the next scene is a long shot of the giant stepping down from a hill with a high angle shot, where suddenly the giant becomes tiny. The interactions between girl and giant are funny and moving, and lack the sentimentality that usually comes in other Spielberg films. The BFG himself is an ambiguous character, the nicest of all giants but one reeling with guilt about the death of a small boy that he befriended before Sophie.
The movie has many of the classic Spielberg touches, including an astounding chase and hide scene that will remind some audiences of the famous kitchen scene in Jurassic Park, only here it’s a more elaborate one covered in a single take involving a lot of digital and special effect elements woven into a single frame. What is new is the broad comedy involved, one hilarious scene where the Giant and Sophie visit Buckingham Palace is a hilarious homage to British nonchalance and aristocratic manners that is genuinely hilarious.
The special effects are superb as always from Spielberg’s film but more interesting is the film’s visual wit, the ability to conjure a London that is set in the present but is also timeless suggesting an earlier Victorian sensibility (with orphanages and Dickens-reading children). The performances are excellent. The newcomer Ruby Barnhill, a 12-year-old making her film debut, gives another of the natural and empathetic performances that Spielberg can effortlessly elicit from child actors. Mark Rylance won an Oscar for his work in Bridge of Spies, and this marks his second film in a row with Spielberg.
He’s incredible in the role, mixing humour and pathos effortlessly, and indeed in his loneliness and his affinity for dream, fantasy and make believe, his tenderness and warmth to kids, one can see that he’s a stand-in for Spielberg himself, such is the rapport between star and director. The BFG is probably “minor Spielberg” but this is still a warm and a happy movie for the whole family with amazing special effects, and a movie that is as light as it is unpretentious.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...