I wish I could say why I never got around to reading The BFG when I was a kid. I devoured other Roald Dahl classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, and I’d finished Matilda almost before the ink was quite dry. It’s not like it was particularly obscure, either; I knew plenty of other kids around my age who’d loved it. Somehow, it just slipped by — a little missed happiness that I never did get around to filling in.
So I come to Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG with fond memories of Dahl’s style of children’s stories, but without a particular impression of what this particular story is supposed to feel like. And I come with fond childhood memories of Spielberg’s own E.T.; much has been made of the fact that this is Spielberg’s first collaboration with screenwriter Melissa Mathison since that film — well, except for their section of The Twilight Zone, which itself feels like a precursor to Spielberg’s Amazing Stories anthology series.
Given this pedigree, the stage was all set for a romp full of nostalgia and childlike wonder. So when I come out and the movie was just okay, it feels like something has gone terribly awry.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong technically with it. Spielberg is as much a master of his craft as ever, and I’m not sure Mathison ever in her life wrote a bad script. The motion-capture work puts a child-sized Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and a giant-sized BFG (Mark Rylance) together as seamlessly and believably as yet we’ve seen.
The performances are no slouch either. Barnhill is charming, and Sophie looks like she could easily be a cousin of Mara Wilson’s Matilda Wormwood. Jermaine Clement seems right at home as Fleshlumpeater, the leader of the evil, child-eating giants.
The real marvels, though, come from Rylance, the unassuming, understated actor who packed an Oscar’s worth of meaning into “would it help?” — his three-word leitmotif from last year’s Bridge of Spies. He brings an incredible range to the BFG, starting out as a tired curmudgeon, then revealing a playful, malapropic side in his conversations with Sophie, and a fearful one when Fleshlumpeater and the eight other giants show up.
His greatest moment comes when he takes Sophie along to catch the dreams he mixes together to blow into children’s bedrooms. His giant ears, he explains, allow him to hear many things that pass unnoticed to us. “All the secret whisperings of the world”, taking one of Dahl’s most achingly beautiful lines and infusing it with a lifetime’s worth of loss, distance, loneliness, and melancholy.
It’s the second half of the movie where all that promise is squandered. To fight off the evil giants, Sophie and the BFG enlist the aid of the Queen, which devolves into a child’s fantasy. It’s Milne’s “James James Morrison Morrison”, or Eliza Doolittle singing “Just You Wait” in My Fair Lady. And I fully get the weirdness of complaining that a movie intended for children gets, well, childish. It’s just such an odd turn to make, from bittersweet longing to pratfalls, flatulence, and easy wish-fulfillment. Does Dahl’s book take such an abrupt volte-face? or does he cut the bitter with the sweet more evenly?
There is a reading I can think of that does allow the two modes to sit next to each other. It puts the entire action of the movie into Sophie’s head, as an attempt to escape her own lonely, orphanage-bound life. Maybe that’s what Spielberg and Mathison intended, but there’s never a point where they tip that hand, so I find it hard to believe.
Overall it’s fine, and I’m sure kids will love it. The Dahl-reading kid inside of me is left wondering, though: were these stories as good as I’d remembered them? Maybe this is what Dahl has always been like, and I just didn’t notice at the time. Or maybe I’ve just grown up and lost some of my ability to hear the wonder.
Worth It: yes.
Bechde-Wallace Test: fail.