Roald Dahl, Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney always had something in common. Their stories inherently understood what kids of all ages wanted to see, but certainly in the case of Spielberg and Dahl, there’s always been a darker edge to the material that firmly winks at the secondary audience. With Spielberg’s adaptation of THE BFG, based on an adapted screenplay by his long-time collaborator Melissa Mathison, it’s not entirely clear who the audience is. Some of the original charm is there, but not the sense of wonder that normally comes with the veteran’s productions.
Sticking close to Dahl’s original narrative doesn’t necessarily mean capturing its spirit in a bottle either. In this version, precocious ragamuffin and orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is whisked away from her London orphanage. Far from being the Childchewer or Bloodbottler that his fellow citizens of Giant Country are, the creature soon known as the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) is the runt of the litter at a mere 24-feet tall, and lives solely on a fruit called Snozzcumbers. Collecting dreams for a living, Sophie inspires him to set out on a journey that will help him rid the nasty elements from his life for good.
At times, Disney’s THE BFG is dizzying in its momentum, as we watch the landscape fly by from Sophie’s perspective in a thrilling rollercoaster. However, having established the existence of giants early on, Mathison’s final script settles into a dreary pace, with long stretches without any drama at all. Restless youngsters may by shifting in their seats by the time the film settles on it’s trip to the Queen. It’s difficult to reconcile why exactly, as the screenplay is pretty faithful to the source. All the parts are there, but Spielberg’s aesthetic is often one of a quaint American version of all things British. From an establishing scene that squeezes every landmark photographer Janusz Kamiński could fit into a single tracking shot, to the over-the-top child protagonist, Spielberg is very much an American tourist in London. His typical magical realism is replaced by someone else’s notion of quirk, filtered through what feels like a committee’s thoughts on what would be palatable for international audiences.
There’s the odd bit of digital transition that works incredibly well, such as a close-up of a giant’s red eye morphing into a sunset, and this reminds us of the wizards behind the cameras. Much of the film is a back and forth across the countryside, often wallowing inside caves and dark corners. There’s a few exceptions, such as genuinely pretty foray into Dreamland, albeit via an excessive use of CG animation that has weighed down Disney’s Alice in Wonderland series. Of course, that same CG gives us the vast array of giants, brought to life by barely recognisable voices like Jemaine Clement, Rafe Spall, and Bill Hader. A brightly lit tea party at Buckingham Palace is a standout scene from the film, finding the right combination of irreverent humour and fart jokes (or “whizpopping”), and doing more in a handful of scenes to build character than the rest of the film combined.
Dahl has been adapted recently on stage in the wonderful Mathilda, in a book by Australia’s Tim Minchin, and it was the right balance of tweeness and inky black comedy that we’ve come to expect from Dahl. THE BFG, on the other hand, struggles to find the right tone throughout, and as likeable as Rylance might be as the titular ‘G’, there’s no tension to guide him. Even the battle finale is over just as quickly as its begun. Perhaps it is simply that some of this unique humour and wordplay works better in print than it does on screen. Regardless, kids will do doubt love the silliness of the ‘frolics’, and hopefully send a generation of them back in the direction of Dahl’s texts.
THE BFG is released on 30 June 2016 in Australia, and on 1 July 2016 in the US, from Disney.
2016 | US | DIR: Steven Spielberg | WRITERS: Melissa Mathison | CAST: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader | DISTRIBUTOR: Disney | RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes | RATING: ★★★