GIANT COUNTRY — I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s, “The BFG.”
I’m just getting that out of the way because inevitably when someone gives their opinion on a book-to-film adaptation, the first question people ask is, “Well, have you read the book?”
It’s a totally appropriate question since expectations will always influence experience, and going into Steven Spielberg’s latest movie about a CG giant and the little orphan he kidnaps, I had none. I have enjoyed many of Dahl’s books, and I do think Dahl’s stories have translated consistently well to the big screen, but walking into “The BFG,” none of that was on my mind.
So, when I say I really enjoyed “The BFG,” know that’s an opinion coming from a blank-slate audience member. I can’t tell you if writer Melissa Mathison captured the magic from the original pages or included that part that made you giggle as a little kid. I’m simply going to say the creative team behind “The BFG” captured a really sweet story about one of my favorite cinematic relationships of the year.
As always, let’s talk about the highlights:
I’m probably never going to get over the fact that this entire story begins with a kidnapping. Yes, I loved Sophie and her giant by the end of the story, and yes the way they grow individually because of each other is heartwarming, but on a personal note, I wish they’d found a different way to bring these characters together.
That said, this is the premise section so I’ll get on with it.
“The BFG” follows a dream catching giant who, while walking the streets of London one night, is seen by an unusually responsible orphan named Sophie. Because the big friendly giant can’t have humans alerted to his existence, he takes the young orphan back to his world, where we find out he has bigger issues than just what to do with his new captive.
Consistently hounded and bullied by much larger, people-eating giants, the BFG realizes he’s going to need help if he wants to keep Sophie safe. And who better to help a giant and his orphan friend in a time of dire need? Well, that part was the biggest surprise to me, so for other non-BFG veterans, we’ll keep that bit under wraps.
So much of whether you like this movie or not will come down to your relationship with the Big Friendly Giant. While Sophie is obviously the protagonist of the story, and an adorably courageous one to be sure, whether you care about this adventure as a whole rests in the very large hands of the BFG.
It turns out, as much as I loved Mark Rylance’s award-winning performance as Rudolf Abel in “Bridge of Spies,” I was actually more impressed with his creative decisions as a bullied, but determined dwarf giant. His performance as the BFG finds itself balancing childlike vulnerability with sage-old experience. One minute, he’s lecturing on the way things are and the next fighting back tears when someone shows him kindness.
Because Rylance sells the duality of the character so well, it makes the few moments Sophie is asked to be the strength of the relationship that much more believable.
I’ll be brief here because I’m not entirely sure why the visuals worked for me. They shouldn’t have. Usually, obviously-CG characters interacting with real people and real environments is one of the fastest ways to pull me out of my moviegoing experience. And in fact, a perfect example of this was another CG giant movie, “Jack the Giant Slayer.”
So why did “The BFG” work despite its not-quite-real ways? Maybe it works in the same way illustrations work in a children’s book — I don’t know. All I can say definitively is that for the 157 minute runtime, I was happy to believe Sophie had a giant friend who lived in a giant world full of giant bullies. But I should also point out that it wouldn’t surprise me if audiences found the effects to be distracting.
I don’t find fart jokes funny. Actually, I should point out one exception — the “Finding Nemo” “nice” comment — that made me kind of chuckle.
Regardless, as a general rule, I consider body humor to be a pretty lazy shot at comedy, especially when it comes to children’s stories. So as soon as the BFG introduces Sophie to a fizzy drink where the bubbles drift down instead of up towards the surface, I was already rolling my eyes.
But to Spielberg’s credit, I was surprised to see him turn a tired farce into several moments of genuine tension. In the screening I attended, I heard kids saying things like, “oh no,” as the dominoes of said scenes started falling in place. When the inevitable punchlines did land, there was plenty of laughter throughout the theater.
No, it wasn’t enough to convert me to potty comedy, but “The BFG” was definitely the best case scenario when it comes fart jokes — if there is such a thing.
If “The BFG” didn’t have a such a sweet relationship grounding its unconventional story, issues like juvenile body humor and some questionable design decisions might have seemed more distracting. But as it stands, sincerity wins the day with this little family adventure, and Rylance’s giant performance is the primary reason.
Follow Travis on Twitter @tspoppleton.