The BFG began life as a novel by Roald Dahl in 1982 and, in UK editions alone, has sold 37m copies. That Steven Spielberg should have become director of this version — set in England with the Queen, Buckingham Palace, corgis and servitors all central to the story — suggests the avidity of the audience (who love Dahl, a noted fantasist) and the director’s consistent preoccupation with the Dickensian worldview.
As far back as ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982) many of Spielberg’s young protagonists are searching for a father; in ET there is a messy and confusing divorce and the kindly monster stands in as a guide to life. Here little Sophie (Barnhill) is an orphan in a dictatorial institution. Her yearnings are spoken aloud when she cannot sleep and she passes time reading, by torchlight, a novel by Dickens. The oppressiveness of her dormitory presses in on her spirit — yet she is being prepared for a journey through a kaleidoscopic wonderland, as are we.
One night a giant (Rylance, made huge by motion capture and modern cinema magic) picks her up and carries her off to Giant Country.
Rylance is the Big Friendly Giant of the title, old but immortal, living alone and lonely among a repellent group of even bigger, cannibalistic grotesques with names such as Fleshlumpeater (Clement, playing the leader of the evil ones), Bloodbottler, Bonecruncher, Gizzardgulper and Childchewer ... But why go on? Dahl’s “funny” names make children squeal with fear yet at the same time laugh, and the BFG rips language apart.
His stuttering mélange of words includes (partly from memory, but also because I googled a list) “gobblefunk”, “splitzwiggle”, “gloriumptuous”, and (for humans) “beans”. Dahl could only have invented these portmanteaus because he must (in part) have remained a child.
All of which might make adults speed for the exit — except that, with Spielberg’s famous visual craft and undercurrents of what truly makes us afraid, the story carries us along and is refreshingly brief. The abduction and devouring of children is not in itself laughable and greater length might have involved the gruesome, of which Dahl was not shy.
And then there’s Buck House and the Queen (Wilton). With her regal assurance and the utter obedience of her butler (Tibbs) and lady’s maid (Hall) she’s a little like the Red Queen — and also the current incumbent of the throne. This is how an Empire could be run by a benign monarch resembling your Auntie Meg. She summons her enormous armed forces to help the BFG and Sophie attack the monstrous louts remaining in Giant Country, who want to sprawl out and devour yet more children. In the end, Sophie may even get a room at the Palace — unless it’s all a dream.
Sophie’s yearning for a different life matches that of the BFG, who captures and gives people dreams for a living, and whose makeup renders him something more than an elongated predator and lends a remarkable tenderness to his mobile face and eyes. He and Sophie have an innocent bond, yet Spielberg’s touch and John Williams’ music — with the beauty and otherworldliness of Giant Country — renders it all a fantasy, though the condition of hope may always be made astringent by loss.
Among the whispered promises of greater things in life ahead for Sophie, the BFG says swiftly “Despair”, and moves on. This unhappy prospect, perhaps for no cause, is an emotion that children sometimes understand all too well.
So, cinema for the little ’uns — do take them and enjoy yourself!
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Original novel: Roald Dahl
Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall