Cinematic and theatrical takes on Roald Dahl’s work have always yielded mixed results. For every adaptation as savvy as Tim Minchin’s (soon to be filmed) stage musicalisation of Matilda or Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 film of The Witches there have been forays as unappealing as Tim Burton’s clunky Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and the Royal Court Theatre’s recent misbegotten rendering of The Twits.
Steven Spielberg’s lavish adaptation of The BFG, which premiered out of Competition at Festival de Cannes today, ranks as one of the finest-ever Dahl screen adaptations. The tale of young orphan Sophie and her friendship with the gentle behemoth of the title, a “dream-catcher” with whom she travels to Giant Country, The BFG appeared in 1982 and soon became among the most beloved of Dahl’s books, with an animated version made for British TV in the late ’80s. The new movie’s greatness lies, in part, in the way that it chimes with established Spielberg preoccupations — lonely kids, the consolations and terrors of dreams and imagination – while also remaining true to Dahl’s vision.
As the first Disney-branded film to be directed by Spielberg, the exemplary technical credentials of the movie aren’t too much of a surprise. Rick Carter’s superb production design and Janusz Kamiński’s vibrant cinematography render such locales as the BFG’s lair, complete with “dream jars”, assorted gizmos, and a “sailing-boat bed”, with extraordinary richness and warmth. The use of “SimulCam”, pioneered by James Cameron on Avatar (2009), is impressive throughout, making the movie feel big, of course, but also humanly scaled, with emotions communicated in the clear yet nuanced manner of Spielberg’s best.
In the midst of such technological wizardry, what is surprising, however, is the film’s beautiful attention to the spoken word. The late E.T (also 1982) scribe Melissa Mathison’s terrific screenplay takes much of its dialogue verbatim from Dahl and that includes the BFG’s “Gobblefunk” language: an idiosyncratic, onomatopoeic idiom that riffs charmingly and creatively around English meanings and pronunciations and gives the movie much of its distinctive flavor.
As incarnated by the prodigious Mark Rylance (once again demonstrating his great versatility as he reunites with Spielberg after their acclaimed Bridge of Spies collaboration from last year), the BFG sometimes suggests a particularly amiable Thomas Hardy character reciting “Jabberwocky”. Rylance’s generous performance gives the film its depth and soul, and as he catches Ruby Barnhill’s appealingly spirited Sophie in the palm of his hand, the rapport between these two lonely souls is heart-grabbingly poignant. Part of the joy of the movie is that Sophie is such a thoughtful and active young protagonist, always doing, always trying, and always challenging the BFG to stand up to the larger giants who oppress and bully him.
The movie runs into a few problems in its final third, when Sophie and the BFG call on the Queen to help them defeat these giant foes. It’s a notion straight out of Dahl, to be sure, and it allows the great Penelope Wilton to contribute an arch and mildly amusing cameo as Elizabeth II. (Spielberg apparently cast Wilton after seeing her in Downton Abbey.) Yet, the scenes of Sophie and the BFG navigating Buckingham Palace protocol don’t quite find the right tone, with wry mockery and satire giving way to a little sycophancy as Liz II is romanticized on screen (yet again) as a tolerant, humorous woman who’s unfazed by a giant’s presence and is willing to take premonition dreams seriously.
A stupendous corgi reaction shot almost redeems this sequence but, even so, there’s something queasy about the film’s insistence upon military might as the way to resolve a conflict; swooping helicopters evoke Vietnam and, at one particularly misconceived point, Wilton’s Queen is seen phoning the Reagans for aid: here, the rampaging giant foes are clearly compared to a Commie threat. Overall, the sequence violates the rapt, magical tone of the movie, so it’s a definite relief when the film returns to the rapport between its true hero and heroine at the end.
The BFG is the kind of restorative film that puts you in a generous frame of mind, however. So let’s overlook the Royalist twist and conclude by stating that Spielberg’s latest is glorious: an intelligent, rich and huge-hearted family film that’s a treat both to look at and to listen to.