Directed by Steven Spielberg
In cinemas now
Many a fine director has used a Roald Dahl source novel as the tapestry for their films (Tim Burton – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wes Anderson – Fantastic Mr Fox, Nic Roeg – The Witches), so the prospect of Steven Spielberg casting his magic on The BFG from a script by his ET scriptwriter Melissa Mathison was a sure thing. And the icing on the top of that 24-foot giant cake was a performance by Mark Rylance as the titular tall guy, clutching an Oscar from Spielberg’s last film, Bridge of Spies. Basically, where could I sign up now for the film of the year?
Except… it’s very good where it should be excellent. It’s not in Hook or 1941 territory, but neither does it reach the heights of ET or Raiders. And that’s the problem with inflated expectations, they are seldom achieved. Many have debated whether Spielberg is an auteur – sure, he has signature touches, but does he make films that are distinctly, immediately recognisable as his own? John Williams’ Harry Potter-like score does of course help the movie feel like it’s one of his director’s canon, but there’s little else that’s unmistakably Spielberg. So I’m going to continue judging the movie now purely as it plays out – ignoring the calibre of the crew making it, and whether collectively they should have made something superb.
It helps that the only other filmed version of The BFG is a 1989 animation with David Jason; a fun 87 minutes, but not a cinematic classic. The 2016 version is 30 minutes longer, and herein lies the first problem. The movie gets straight into the action with young orphan Sophie (a wonderful big-screen debut by Ruby Barnhill) being snatched by Rylance’s big-eared protagonist and being whisked away to the land of the giants… but then it really slows down for a good 15-20 minutes. I could hear younger members of the audience – initially captivated by the abduction – shifting uncomfortably at the slower pace as the tropes of the giant kingdom, spell jars, etc. were explained. It picks up again when the gang of larger giants make a house call (what is the collective noun for giants?) adding some jeopardy and humour to bump things along.
The movie shifts again when returning to London circa early 1980s and the Queen of England is called upon to help protect the children of the world from future giant abductions. Penelope Wilton has great fun as a stylised Elizabeth II, never trying to ape her majesty, just playing it all regal. Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall also provide solid support here as a footman security guard and PA secretary respectively.
But what of the effects? Mark Rylance’s features are beautifully mapped onto the face of the long-necked elephant-eared hero, marking the next stage in CGI evolution. We’re no longer in the uncanny valley because it’s not really meant to look photo-real, and yet it’s unmistakably Rylance up there on the screen. He tackles Dahl’s tricky muddled-up dialogue with aplomb and Mathison doesn’t shy away from the giant colloquialisms.
Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement has great fun as Fleshlumpeater, tearing up the scenery (literally) as the dim bully leader of the giants, on the lookout for his next human bean snack. But at the end of the days it’s Ruby who is the star. At no point precocious, she is endearing, brave and provides the movie with a solid heart. She is a great find and I have no doubt we’ll see her again soon in high profile material.
Verdict: Forget it’s directed by Spielberg, forgive the temporary longueur during the exposition dump and settle back for solid family fare. Oh, and the farting corgis are hilarious. 7/10