Despite being set within a world of giants, Spielberg's adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG thrives on its small moments
When published in 1982, Roald Dahl’s The BFG was dedicated to the memory of his late daughter, Olivia, who died age seven some 20 years prior. In 2016, the live-action adaptation of the novel from director Steven Spielberg takes on a bittersweet quality of its own: its screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, passed away due to cancer eight months before the film’s release. In the same year The BFG was published, Spielberg and Mathison collaborated on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which has endured as one of the most beloved family films in cinema history. Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG not only succeeds as a lovely swansong for the screenwriter but also proves the director's most charming fusion of whimsy and childlike wonder since that career milestone – you know, excluding the one where a robot child’s world goes to hell less than halfway through.
That being said, the screenplay clearly provided some challenges. Though the eponymous big friendly giant is a huge character (dwarfed by even larger antagonistic ones), the book is one of Dahl’s more delicate affairs, primarily concerned with flights of linguistic fantasy rather than the kind of escalation of set-pieces that would make a Hollywood production an easy prospect to map out – the animated TV movie from 1989 tried filling the arguable lulls in incident with some musical numbers.
What’s the solution for the 2016 film? Well, they got Steven Spielberg to make it. In a summer season of especially hacky direction at large, the sure hand of Spielberg’s craft is not something to be taken for granted. Indeed, in a contemporary family film landscape rife with a touch too much freneticism (yes, even Pixar) and sentient chicken nuggets spouting gibberish (a.k.a. Minions), the comparatively slow-burning patience used for The BFG feels like an outlier (ignoring the output of Studio Ghibli). But unlike so many films aimed at kids, this one understands what it’s like to see with the eyes of a child. There’s magic, not just in the spectacle (which recalls the textures of Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin in its particular use of digital effects) and silly slapstick (behold the rarity of an actually good fart joke), but also in simple conversations, which make up so much of both Dahl’s wonderfully strange story and this particular take on it.
For those who grew up loving E.T., the pleasures weren’t just in the iconography of an airborne boy on a bicycle passing by the moon; they were primarily in observing the relationship between the human child and the alien entity develop through incidents both big and small, but mainly small. And despite The BFG being a tale of friendship between a young girl and a hulking figure of fantasy in a land of giants, Spielberg’s film thrives on and luxuriates in the small. Even Mark Rylance’s turn as the title character – in a motion-capture performance that genuinely rivals the work of field pioneer Andy Serkis – is based around introversion; despite being as tall as a building, he’s the runt of a pack.
While the rest of his kind seek to take from the human world, The BFG simply does what he can to give something back to it, in this case providing ‘human beans’ with the dreams with which they can briefly escape the woes of their lives. It’s a small gesture, but an appreciated one, and Spielberg is doing much the same with this movie. It may not feel like a giant in this particular filmmaker’s extensive career, but sometimes big and friendly is just enough.
Released by Entertainment One