THE BFG is the latest BFD from Steven Spielberg (E.T., A.I.) and it’s an LSM (Lesser Spielberg Movie), but still won me over PDQ. Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the CF, James and the GP, The Fantastic MF), it’s the story of a 24-foot tall individual (Mark Rylance, BLITZ, BRIDGE OF SPIES) whose thing is he comes into town at 3 a.m. with a trumpet that blows dreams into people. But this time he’s seen by Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a little night owl girl at an orphanage, and he doesn’t want her to burn his whole operation so he reaches into her window, picks her up in his palm and absconds with her to Giant Country.
I love the way this giant sneaks into town. It’s not one of those things where he’s invisible to people who don’t believe in him or something. No, he just comes in late at night and knows how to hide when people are around. He wears a cloak that he wraps around himself and he’ll move into the shadows, curl up on the bed of a truck or stand in the shape of a tree. I like that it’s not all that convincing of a tree, because it shows that there could be crazy shit going on right under our noses that we just don’t notice because we’re not looking for it. Nobody expects giants.
BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant, which he says people used to call him, so Sophie abbreviates it. As a G he doesn’t really know how to behave around a human, let alone understand the concept of consent (he doesn’t care that she doesn’t want to be forced to live in his house for the rest of her life). But on the positive side it turns out he doesn’t want to eat her because he’s not a “canniabal” and only eats “vegeterribles” such as the snozzcumber, which looks similar to a cucumber except for the worm-like seeds that slither out of it when sliced. He has lots of words he says that I figured were some kind of G slang or dialect, but he explains that he speaks “squiggly” and tries to say words right but sometimes gets them left.
The screenplay is by the late Melissa Mathison, and in a way it’s like a reverse of her E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Instead of a kid finding and taking in an extraordinary creature, it’s the creature that takes her in. He has to try to hide her in his home and teach her about his ways and keep her from being harmed by his people and instead of drinking beer and burping like E.T. he has her drink “frobscottle” which makes her “whizzpop,” which is G-talk for “fart.” And she figures out how to phone home for help.
Of course, it can also be compared to the other Mathison children’s book adaptation, THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD. In that one a kid had a tiny Native American man, magically taken away from his world against his will, living in a miniature camp inside the regular sized bedroom, in danger from the others who might discover him, but there to keep a lonely kid company. Here the giant is the kid and the kid is the Indian.
The BFG is lonely because he doesn’t fit in at all with the other Gs. They’re twice as B as him and completely unF. They barge into his house, push him around, call him “runt,” make him clean them. They have names like Meatdripper, Childchewer and Gizzardgulper, and they actually do eat “human beans” like a bunch of canniabals. They dress like barbarians but they’re kind of the Giant Country equivalent of rednecks I think, they hang around together doing stupid shit like going down hills standing on top of human sized vehicles.
I didn’t notice any signs that this was a period piece until late in the movie when I was surprised by the reference to Ronald Reagan being president. This makes sense, since the book was written in 1982, and it explains why they didn’t add any jokes about N.W.A or calling him “The Notorious B.F.G.” But since it’s the year of Thriller they really could’ve worked “P.Y.T.” in there somewhere in my opinion.
This is actually pretty gentle for a Dahl story. The giants are loathsome but most of the human race gets off easier than usual. Sophie reports that the orphanage headmaster Mrs. Clonkers (Marilyn Norry, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW) gives them cruel punishments, but we never see any of this. We also never see Sophie interact with other children, because they’re asleep the whole time we see her around them. But it seems likely she’s not a popular kid judging from her adult preoccupations (she considers Mrs. Clonkers incompetent and takes it upon herself to do parts of her job like locking the doors and chewing out loud drunks in the alley) and the fact that she never mentions any kids back home that she might miss or anything.
Ten year old rookie actress Barnhill is another amazing kid performance in a Spielberg movie, and I thought the uptightness of the character was really funny. She gets to meet the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton, MATCH POINT) but spends most of the time terrified that the BFG will say something embarrassing and trying to signal him about etiquette. Rylance gives another fantastic performance, making the odd language sound natural and the weirdness lovable. The amazing part is that he does so much acting with his eyes, which had to be digitally re-created by WETA in a motion capture character kinda like the ones in THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. And it works! The beautifully bittersweet ending of the movie (which seems to be about the only big change from the book, judging from Wikipedia’s summary) really got me, and it’s 100% dependent on a facial expression.
Because it follows the book it’s not a typical movie structure, and it ends up being largely a two person acting duet between child actor and animated giant, which is really cool. I confess there was a point when the meandering whimsy started to get old to me, but right about then it shifted into the completely different third act and things picked up again.
While I would rank this low in my favorite Spielberg movies if I was an internet guy who ranked Spielberg movies, there were scenes where his potent filmatism had my brain screaming I LOVE YOU SPIELBERG!, like the part where she gets snatched and he puts us right there with Sophie peeking out from a blanket being carried through the city and across the water.
Whatever its weaknesses may be, I’ve definitely never seen another movie quite like it.
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That includes the old version. The BFG had already been adapted back in 1989, an animated special for British television, directed by Brian Cosgrove, who did that cartoon Danger Mouse.
It must be pretty close to the book because it’s very similar to the Spielberg movie. The look of the snozzcumber and the giant in the cloak are pretty much the same too.
In the Spielberg version there’s a major scene of
fart whizzpop humor when they drink the frobscottle and it makes them fart whizzpop, which makes green fumes come out of their asses and sometimes blasts them off the ground like a rocket. In this version it’s confined to the early scene where he explains what frobscottle does. There’s a whole musical number with both BFG and Sophie flying around propelled by farts. It’s a much more unpleasant version of that scene in WILLY WONKA/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where they have to burp to lower themselves after the Fizzy Lifting Drinks make them float to the ceiling.
When they get the military involved it gets pretty cool. The sky turns psychedelic for the big scene of the helicopters flying to Giant Country. It’s like suddenly Oliver Stone got involved.
But right after that some of the animation reminds me of GI Joe.
And yes, they meet the Queen in this one too.
I can’t say this one really worked for me, but it’s of a higher quality than I assumed from the box, with some decent animation of the old school hand made variety where you can see pencil marks and brush strokes. If your kid read the book and saw the Spielberg and is still suffering from acute BFGmania you might as well throw this one on to calm them down briefly before their next serious episode.
P.S. I saw the new BFG in 2D, but it seemed like it would’ve been great in 3D tbh. IMO it is worth seeing ASAP and I don’t have an ETA on DVD/VOD anyway but YMMV, LOL WTF YOLO.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.