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BFG, The (3D) (2D)


Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Adam Godley

Director: Steven Spielberg

Having made his name (and that of its editor Verna Fields) with Jaws, Steven Spielberg hit the box-office jackpot once again with the hit family film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which, robbed of its science fiction elements, basically boasted a storyline similar to all those Disneyesque family features in which a young boy fights to save his beloved pet pooch from angry farmers.

This time around, in his second collaboration with the (late) E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, Spielberg has had the extremely good fortune to have a confirmed children’s fantasy classic – Roald Dahl’s novel The BFG (published in 1982, the year when E.T. was released) – as source material for this largely enchanting family fantasy.

Where Dahl had a sharp edge – his giants (although not the BFG, of course) are unashamed cannibal eaters of “human beans”- Spielberg and Mathison inject nastiness, diluting cuteness, into their storytelling, presumably with box-office appeal in mind.

“It’s the witching hour when the boogey man comes out”, we’re informed at the start by precocious 10-year-old Sophie (delightfully played without any irritating hint of “I-want-to-be-an actor precociousness by young newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who, unable to sleep in her Victorian-style London orphanage and with a mind and imagination sharpened by reading books (serendipitously in 1982 when Dahl’s novel was published, the regrettably endemic iPhones had yet to be invented) is unable to sleep, unlike the other girls in her dormitory.

Looking out of the window onto Spielberg’s somewhat Dickensian view of London (while there are cars on view, I half expected Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper to appear in walk-on roles) Barnhill sees the eponymous giant – endearingly played, despite being essentially a creation of movie magic, by Mark Rylance, who snatches her out of the window and carries her off to his home in Giant Country…

Despite finding herself in a frying pan, Barnhill soon comes to realise she has her first real friend in the Big Friendly Giant who, unlike the gang of nasty giants, does not feed on humans but rather prefers – as depicted - nasty-tasting “snozzcumbers”.

Despite his reading Nicholas Nickleby to her (surely an act of cruelty?) the odd couple bond and she ends up accompanying him on his mission of capturing dreams to blow into the minds of sleeping humans.

The story takes the odd couple to Buckingham Palace where the BFG breakfasts with Queen Elizabeth (played with perhaps even more charm than the original by Penelope Wilton), meets the over-enthusiastic corgis and suffers bagpipes before Her Majesty orders a military attack on the odious giants who have been bullying the BFG, prior to dining on human beans…

The technology of the storytelling is state of the art, with magnificent motion-capture creating a BFG to savour without adulterating Rylance’s memorable creation who, despite his size and potential for inducing terror, comes over as a charmer to remember. Barnhill, too, is first rate while, again escaping from the special effects that create them, the posse of unfriendly giants come across as more reprehensible in their actions, Grimm, rather than grim.

Fine colour cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and John Williams’ symphony-style score add to a family fantasy that delights and excites in equal measures and one in which the original source material thankfully survives Spielbergian treatment.

(I discovered that Dahl worked in East Africa in the 1930s and as a result spoke fluent Swahili, which means I can say “mzuri sana” for providing the creative spine for Spielberg’s show.)

Incidentally - The BFG appeared as an a animated feature in 1989 directed by Brian Cosgrove and featuring David Jason as the voice of the giant, while Amanda Roots spoke for his young kidnapped visitor.

Alan Frank

UK/USA/Canada 2016. UK Distributor: EntertainmentOne. Colour.
117 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: PG.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 28 Jul 2016