I remember being in second grade and listening intently as The BFG was read aloud to our class. This was somewhat of a trend, you see, as our teacher had already shared several classic Roald Dahl tales with us: Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, you name it. While those readings have faded from my memory, for whatever reason I can clearly picture hearing about Sophie and her Big Friendly Giant for the first time.
To be honest, I’m surprised it took this long for BFG to receive the big screen treatment. Nonetheless, I was admittedly nervous when I heard that it was finally happening, despite the fact that Steven Spielberg was chosen to helm the voyage into giant country. Adapting children’s novels into a feature length film is tricky. There is rarely enough material for a complete screenplay, which usually means that a lot of new scenes have to be added to get us from Point A to Point B. Sometimes this enhances the story and makes for a wonderful experience and other times you wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just leave well enough alone.
So did Spielberg pull it off? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. Allow me to explain.
What we have here is a finely crafted family film. Kids will love it and parents will be content to go along for the ride. Spielberg stays true to the spirit of the novel and does a pretty exceptional job with the motion capture. Mark Rylance turns in a good performance as BFG. Ruby Barnhill as Sophie puts in an even better one. It was imperative that the right actors were cast in these roles and I can honestly say that Barnhill surpasses all expectations that I had for a child acting opposite of a giant who isn’t really there. This was also the case with The Jungle Book and regardless of your opinion on CGI, at least it’s giving these kids a chance to shine.
And make no mistake, The BFG is a visual splendor that is meant to be seen at the theater. Spielberg clearly intended to wow his audience with the lush countryside and awe-inspiring sights of giant country, and for me this is where the film loses some of its allure. It’s a treat to look at, but there isn’t always a lot happening. BFG snatches Sophie out of her bed, takes her to his home and keeps her hidden from his much fouler and larger brethren. And that’s kind of your movie for the first hour or so.
Now in the book, things move at fairly brisk pace, as many children’s novels do. They can’t hurry things along on the big screen because they have a running time to adhere to, and therein lies our problem. Or at least my problem. I can only watch Sophie hide from the other giants or stare in amazement at the magical scenery before I start to get a little restless. This is also what I find happening to myself at an art museum. Sure, that piece or painting looks great, but I can only take it in for so long before I want to move on. As far as those giants go, they are your typical, one-dimensional villains who like to eat people because that’s something that an evil giant would do. Maybe human beings (or beans, as the giants say) are delicious, but that’s not the point.
I know what you’re saying: “Lighten up, Jesse, it’s a family film. Don’t be so cynical.” As I mentioned, The BFG functions just fine as a family film. Your kids will probably watch it over and over and it’s not a bad way to kill a couple of hours, if that’s what you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you’re hoping that Spielberg will forever change the way you remember one of your favorite childhood books, you’re going to wind up disappointed. He pretty much plays it safe, lets Rylance and Barnhill do their thing and ensures that a new generation will know who the BFG is.
But hey, it’s either this or you can let your kids torture you with Minions or Ice Age 5: The Letdown. Sometimes we just need to be happy that there is family entertainment out there that doesn’t make us want to kill ourselves.
Jesse’s Rating: B