Two of the greatest children’s entertainers of the twentieth century in Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg come together to create a wonderful family film that’s perfect for rainy summer days. Starring Mark Rylance and Penelope Wilton.
As story-tellers go, Roald Dahl’s not had a bad run at the cinema.
The original adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was one of the greatest family movies of all time, Gene Wilder skilfully tiptoeing between fun-loving eccentric and menacing control-freak and just about keeping Willy Wonka the right side of sanity. Jonny Depp’s version was great, if a lot darker, while James And The Giant Peach was a surreal nightmare wrapped up in Tim Burton-style stop-motion magic. Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda and The Witches were all lovingly and faithfully brought to the big screen, such is the reverence in which Dahl is held by Hollywood.
But what of one of his last great tales, The Big Friendly Giant ?
Well, going into this one more familiar with the serialised newspaper cartoon strip than the original novel, I didn’t really know what to expect. The trailers had been running for months and Mark Rylance seemed to be this year’s hottest property as a character actor, having deservedly won the Oscar for his role as the Russian agent in the superb Bridge Of Spies. There was a visual nod of respect to Spielberg’s own ET with the little girl’s hand grabbing the finger of the BFG in the poster, but apart from that I knew very little of the actual story ..
Anytime in the last century.
Morris Minors and orphanages. Puddled streets and a troubled child.
The BFG opens gently, almost like a dream, as we meet Sophie – played to perfection by Ruby Barnhill – a bright, curious girl who seems to have suffered no ill-effects of losing her parents other than to be bored and highly imaginative both at the same time.
Already outsmarting the staff of the children’s home, she stays up late at night, stalking the corridors, waiting patiently for something to happen .. or someone. She knows. She knows something. Maybe she’s seen or heard it .. or maybe it’s just in those books she likes to read. But she knows something happens at night, when the world sleeps.
And so she keeps watch. Watching and waiting. Waiting for The BFG.
From the timeless, meandering first act, the story propels the viewer through the next two or three chapters as Sophie finds herself bundled up by her new acquaintance – not yet a friend – and hurtling across the land at breakneck speed as the giant heads for home, back to Giant country.
Living in an organic cave-tree-house kind of a dwelling full of Heath Robinson-esque gadgetry, Sophie’s new world is revealed. There’s plenty of danger, plenty of enemies, but all the while there’s the BFG, there to protect her and hide her from the other, less friendly and much bigger giants.
There are secrets, both in what the BFG does and what he has done.
He shares some with Sophie, but others she finds out for herself.
Then there’s the little matter of meeting the Queen – played by Penelope Wilton – and of averting an international crisis. Only then is the story really dated (and only then by Nancy Reagan and Boris Yeltsin) but it doesn’t matter because this isn’t just Giant country, this is Dahl country so you know everything’s going to be fine.
If you feel I’m being deliberately vague, it’s for a reason : I actually saw the final trailer after I saw the movie and I felt let down that one of the best gags was ruined by it, so – as usual – there’ll be no spoilers from me.
This is a proper British film with a proper British script and proper British actors set in Britain with British values and British jokes and it’s bloody Britishly funny and brilliant and is absolutely perfect for the whole family. There’s no smut or split level gags that work for mums and dads but not kids – it’s all just good, clean, original fun.
Rylance is amazing as the BFG, with just the right level of humble country-bumpkin mixed with common sense and decency. The accent is spot-on : I always expected the giant to sound like he hailed from Bristol, but maybe that’s just me. He’s also nailed the script, which is no mean feat given there’s more gobbledegook in evidence here than a Stanley Unwin one-man-show.
Oh, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Rylance turns out to be a Fast Show fan because there’s more than a touch of Ted about the BFG. I half expected Ralph to pop up at some point to ask about the drainage in the lower fields ..
The look of the picture is also perfect, being a mix of Spielbergian utopia and Quentin Blake madness. There are no flaws in the effect, either – it’s seamless in just about every conceivable way.
Wilton as the Queen ? I wasn’t too sure initially, but once she slipped on the glasses and a dressing gown (!) she was every inch Liz II.
Ruby Barnhill is one to watch : Sophie is often scared, determined, dauntless and inquisitive all in the same scene, but she holds her own against the rest of the cast.
The music is by none other than John “Star Wars” Williams himself, while the script was written by Melissa Mathison, who wrote ET. This is a Spielberg picture, in case you’d forgotten. In short, The BFG is a marvellous movie that everyone should watch and I can’t praise it highly enough.
What are you waiting for ?