What motivates an artist to return time and time again to the formative and gentle years of childhood? Is it a rejection of the adult world, the world of responsibility and accountability? Or is it a plea to the next generation? Here is where we failed, please to be avoiding these pitfalls. Those who tell stories about their experience are trying to understand now. Those who tell children’s tales, try to understand the future.
What makes the latest Roald Dahl cinematic adaptation, The BFG, a success is that the forces behind the movie are nothing if not fascinated about what children will make of the world. Reteaming the powerhouse that breathed life into E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and bringing them under the banner of Disney, director Steven Spielberg, scribe Melissa Mathison and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy give Dahl’s beloved book, The BFG, the big screen treatment for a whole new generation of children. The BFG — that Big Friendly Giant — once again strides into children’s dreams and pleas for kindness.
Set in London in the 1980s, The BFG finds precocious insomniac, Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), wide-awake during the witching hour. When she sees something she shouldn’t, a giant, she is whisked away to Giant Country where she will have to live out the rest of her days lest she spill the secret.
Luckily, Sophie has been abducted by a big, friendly giant (Mark Rylance in motion capture) who is a vegetarian by choice — he grows Snozzcumbers to make a horrid stew and ferment into explosive Frobscottle — and a dreamer catcher by trade. Sophie learns that BFG steals off into the night to both collect and plant dreams for the children of London. Little orphan Sophie is smitten; here is her first true friend, an intelligent giant, though he mixes up his words frequently, with the heart to match.
Unfortunately, BFG is by no means a standard giant; he is a runt, and the other giants — Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) to name two — are of the carnivorous type and have a hankering for little girls. Sophie and BFG manage to evade them, but Giant Country is by no means a safe place for little girls or runts. The only way to stop them is to enlist the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) and the Royal Air Force to bring the fight to Giant Country.
Dahl published The BFG in 1982; coincidentally the same year Spielberg, Mathison and Kennedy produced another story where a child must convince sympathetic adults to help a kind-hearted outsider. There are many parallels between E.T. and The BFG, but the movies are not mirrors of one another. E.T. belongs to the work of young artists, ones trying to understand their youth while understanding the next generation. The BFG contains more wisdom and more understanding. The world is a big scary place, especially to children, but there are good people out there. BFG is the good worth seeking out.
That good is thanks to Rylance’s performance, full of kind eyes and twisted words. He looks like Quentin Blake’s illustrations suddenly stood up and stepped right off Dahl’s pages. Building off his Academy Award-performance in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Rylance clearly understands the important and underlying aspects of a Spielberg hero.
But it’s hard to consider BFG a Spielberg character when Dahl conceived him, Mathison adapted him and Rylance breathed life into him — with the help of an army of computer technicians. The reunion doesn’t stop there as The BFG brings along Spielberg’s stable of technicians along for one more cinematic ride: cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has been working with Spielberg since 1993’s Schindler’s List; production designer Rick Carter, onboard since 1993’s Jurassic Park; editor Michael Kahn, since 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and, of course, John Williams, who has worked with Spielberg since day one. With talent like this…
Unfortunately, this team will never be able to fully reunite again. Last November, Mathison passed away from neuroendocrine cancer. She was 65. The BFG is dedicated to her, and it’s hard not to picture little Sophie as Mathison’s stand-in. A friend of the Dalai Lama, Mathison knew what kindness looked like. That comes across in spades in The BFG, and Spielberg captures it perfectly in the movie’s sweet and gentle final image.