By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
I’m willing to bet that in North America, those who grew up on CBC’s The Friendly Giant (which had its roots in radio) will get what The BFG is all about. In this film, although the concept is different and written by Roald Dahl who most likely had little awareness of this television show, to have a gentle grandfatherly figure recount tales of yore would really add to this product more. If only some of those ideas could have been put into this film, then just maybe, it would draw those who probably have not read Dahl’s work — but at least heard of the children’s television program — into checking out this film.
The lead, The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), is nicely cast. Mark Rylance has this air of gentleness and his performance must have been motion captured for computer rendering. This modern version certainly pays tribute to the design featured in the animated 1989 film, and while I have not looked at the original books in ages, I certainly took note of the elephantine ears presented in that version. This movie certainly respects the roots and plays with the story somewhat to make it “current” to its timeline. The sets are gorgeous to look at.
The camerawork is great to establish the vast differences in size and heart-felt between the human, young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), and the giant, The BFG. This girl gets no love in the orphanage she lives in. Pretty much alone, she pines for a different life, and looks outside the window and finds a large figure stalking the London streets. When he realizes he’s been spotted, he has to take her away, out of fear that she may reveal him to the world. She gets whisked away Peter Pan style — almost — and the boat she finds herself in felt very specific to “So come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land!”
But life is not easy. The two do not take to each other right away, and just why The BFG is interested in catching and bestowing dreams upon the mortal world is never fully explained. I wanted to know more about this mystery, and I just may have to turn to Dahl’s work to find out. There has to be some information in the 200-page book to explain why.
Back when this story originally came out, I was already enthralled with the world of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime. Although this film has nothing to do with this world, the Giant Country feels like it does draw from it somewhat. There are other giants who live here which shape the hills and form the mountains. When The BFG is standing side-by-side, he is the runt of the lot. If there are other fairy tale creatures about — like dwarves, elves and fae — they want nothing to do with these aggressive louts. These types are from “Jack and the Beanstalk”; they are big and mean. They have no trouble being cannibals — eating humans if they smell their stench nearby.
This fact nearly gets Sophie caught. When she realizes they need to be stopped — mostly because the leader, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), knows her scent — just where the story goes is a lot more interesting when The BFG and Sophie bond when they venture into Dream Country. This place is where the giant goes to catch dreams. The exposition is a lot more interesting to follow because of my personal interests, and to see how dreams flow around what may be the world tree, Yggdrasil.
Although giants exist in various cultures, the ones Dahl created have no particular cultural origin.
After I read some notes in how the movie’s effects were handled, just how this movie was made to incorporate motion capture in real-time and to have props for Barnhill to react to are amazing. She pulls off a reasonable performance. However, the illusion is not altogether perfect. Obvious green screen compositing was done to put Sophie next to automatons to emulate the massive giants. While the rendering of the behemoths is impressive, the nine giants were too cartoony for my liking. They looked like they came off the pages of Asterix than Dahl. Steven Spielberg tried too hard to insert some classic visual moments from his earlier films, like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, into a story that could have benefited having its own special moments. While this director has not lost his touch to visualize powerful moments, he certainly needs to decide on which genres to stick to instead of teeter-tottering between the dramatic, fantastical and thrillers. Bouncing back and forth has certainly softened his style.
3 Stars out of 5