Movies

The BFG

Steven Spielberg’s Roald Dahl adaptation is a little schmaltzy, but there’s real magic in Mark Rylance’s performance.

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill in The BFG.
Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill in The BFG.

Disney

To attempt a half live-action, half motion-captured adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG would seem, to indulge in some of the eponymous giant’s clumsy wordplay, a tall task. The story—which Dahl published in 1982 and dedicated to his daughter Olivia, who had died 20 years earlier at the age of 7 from complications of measles—revolves entirely around the unlikely friendship between a lonely 10-year-old girl and the 24-foot-tall Big Friendly Giant who plucks her from her bed in a small-town orphanage and runs, with her in his pocket, back to the Giant Country.  The BFG is a slender little book, wordier and more whimsical than it is action-packed, and the loose, squiggly line drawings that accompany its text—courtesy of longtime Dahl illustrator Quentin Blake—provide whatever sense of movement the story needs. In short, The BFG seems perfectly self-sufficient in its bookness, in no need of the lavishly cinematic bear hug Steven Spielberg bestows upon it here.

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But if Spielberg’s warmth and sincerity make for an odd match with Dahl’s peculiar brand of reserved misanthropy, this cinematic BFG does deliver where it counts: the giant himself. Played by Mark Rylance in a motion-capture performance, the BFG is every bit as vibrant, funny, and lovable as the flap-eared, peaky-nosed creature of Quentin Blake’s scribbles, speaking with glorious fluency in the half-nonsensical lingo proper to giantkind. (“ ‘How wondercrump!’ cried the BFG, still beaming. ‘How whoopsey-splunkers! How absolutely squiffling! I is all of a stutter.’ ”)

Any parents wondering whether the PG-rated BFG’s central premise—in which, after all, a defenseless child is lifted from her bed and taken hostage by a fleeing giant—might be too scary for small children should rest assured that it’s Spielberg‘s gentleness, not Dahl’s spiky sadism, that rules the day from the very first scene. The insomniac, bespectacled Sophie (a very good Ruby Barnhill) is scooped up, blanket and all, and tucked in the giant’s pocket to be rushed to Giant Country. There’s a fairy-tale sense of adventure rather than a freaky horror-movie vibe as the giant’s long legs leap from one mountaintop crag to the next as if over lily pads in a pond.

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Back in the home cave of the BFG, it becomes clear that he’s spirited Sophie away not to eat her for breakfast but to prevent her from revealing the existence of giants to other humans. But many far bigger and considerably less friendly giants roam the rocky grounds near the BFG’s cave, most notably the Bloodbottler (played by Bill Hader) and the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement). These unrepentant “cannybulls” like to taunt the comparatively shrimpy BFG about his vegetarian diet of snozzcumbers—a foul, slimy vegetable that’s the only crop that will grow in the giants’ land, and which the BFG subsists on rather than the favored food of the rest of his tribe. When Sophie comes to understand that that favored food consists of the small-size “human beans” referred to by the BFG as “chiddlers,” her sense of justice is roused, and she plots with the BFG to inform the queen about this worldwide child-snatching (and -snacking) epidemic.

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On the road between Giant Country and Buckingham Palace there are swoopingly animated chase sequences and comical giant-bonkings to spare, but The BFG is easiest to appreciate when it takes the time to enjoy its own sweet silliness. A late scene in which Sophie and the politely abashed BFG finally sit down to breakfast with the queen (Penelope Wilton) proceeds at a stately yet enjoyable crescendo from social awkwardness to rude mayhem, as royal waiters scale ladders to proffer the BFG huge platters of eggs and toast and buckets of coffee while he in turn offers his human hosts a bottle of frobscottle, the delicious but flatulence-inducing preferred beverage of giants.

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The screenplay (co-written by Spielberg and his longtime collaborator Melissa Mathison, who died in 2015) has neatly dispensed with some of the novel’s more unpleasant elements, like the narrator’s casually colonialist musings about the taste of “human beans” of different nationalities (would Grecians be greasy?), or the grisly details of some of the “cannybull” giants’ kills. The focus here is much more on friendship, trust, and finding one’s true family—familiar themes all, and presented with trademark Spielberg schmaltz.

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Rylance’s tender and deeply invested performance should convince any remaining doubters that motion-capture technology is now advanced enough to have created a new category of on-screen incarnation: the performance of an actor or actress who may be wearing a digital full-body mask but who is nonetheless truly and powerfully acting.  Whether that form of acting should be classed alongside traditional performances come awards season or given a new category of its own is up for debate; it’s evident, though, that we can’t go much longer without recognizing such remarkable technical and artistic co-creations. The bottomless emotional reserve of Rylance—who just won a supporting actor Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and is slated to star in the director’s next two films, a sci-fi dystopia and a historical drama—makes the sometimes galumphing BFG more than a mere pleasant afternoon of family viewing. Rylance’s debut in the strange new world of motion-capture performance is jumbly, it’s delumptious, it’s positively squiffling.

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