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Film Review: The BFG

The BFG (2016; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg could comfortably churn out reasonably enchanting, amusingly diverting all-ages entertainment like The BFG until the day he dies. Although he challenges himself as a filmmaker with more adult-oriented films and while they have proven more divisive but also ultimately more rewarding, it’s with the inner-child sparkling-wonder stuff that he’s particularly in his element.

Adapting Roald Dahl’s 1982 book of the same name, The BFG (which stands for “Big Friendly Giant”, not “Big Fucking Gun”, as first-person-shooter gamers might automatically assume) is a slight, vaguely Disneyfied concoction but a heartfelt, impeccably-crafted, and often visually ravishing one. It follows Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a bookish, imaginative girl who is whisked away from a London orphanage after she catches a furtive glimpse of the titular elderly giant (Mark Rylance, recognizable in the giant’s kindly glances and tweedy whistle of a country-farmer voice) on his nocturnal rounds. He returns to his home in Giant Country with Sophie in tow, and the girl is soon charmed by the mild-mannered BFG and his malaprop-esque mis-speakings. She learns of his magical work of catching dreams and blowing them into the heads of sleeping humans, his whimsical fondness for green-tined, reverse-carbonated fart juice, and his subordinate relationship to the rest of the (much larger) giants, bulky brutes who bully him mercilessly and embark on human-eating expeditions. With Sophie’s aid and fond encouragement, the BFG will push back against these nasty giants and their leader Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement).

Melissa Mathison’s script crams in as much of Dahl’s verbal playfulness as it can manage, as well as plenty of kid-squealing gross-outs (Sophie escapes the determined hunting of Fleshlumpeater inside a moist, squishy vegetable called a snozzcumber, for example) and overt appeals to childish interests. Spielberg, for his part, densely packs in clever visual gags and winking movement beats. All of these elements come together along with a grinning nose-thumbing at upper-crust snootery as Sophie and the BFG dine improbably at Buckingham Palace with the Queen herself (Penelope Wilton). The palace staff engages in absurd contrivances to serve the giant, overflowing platters of delicious-looking food fill the tables, and the Queen’s corgis skid along the carpets on the wings of flatulence. Everyone is having mild, goofy fun, Spielberg chiefly, and it’s a low-key delight.

It feels churlish to object to such a well-polished trifle as The BFG, though a harsh eye might be cast at Barnhill’s slightly-excessive mugging, the stock-idea conception of captured dreams as standard-issue coloured glowing CG teardrops, or the plot-convenience implication that the Queen of England is the commander-in-chief of British armed forces. The BFG doesn’t blaze any new trails but it’s an above-average family fantasy film (albeit without the winks and nods at savvy adults that characterize much feature animation now) that is consistently pretty to look at and not only respects but, more vitally, is in love with its source material. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in bursting, enthusiastic cleverness and fundamental, gentle good humour. At his core, Steven Spielberg doesn’t need much more than this to be happy in the movies. It’s difficult to watch The BFG and not find yourself agreeing with him.

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