Well, it’s finally happened. Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest auteurs who ever lived, has done it. The legendary director of “Jaws” and “Saving Private Ryan” has gone into fart joke territory. What is the cause, you may ask? Has the man who brought us pop culture classics like “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” finally jumped the shark? Has he — like the great hero Odysseus — been blinded by his own filmmaking hubris?
The simple answer is no. But like the mythical Greek hero, Spielberg is treading cautiously in the land of giants with his latest film “The BFG” or “The Big Friendly Giant,” a joint venture between Disney and his own production company Amblin Entertainment.
The particular gassy fault lies with Roald Dahl, the beloved author of children’s books such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “James and the Giant Peach.” All of these books have been translated into the cinematic medium in a number of unique ways under the direction of a diverse group of directors from Danny DeVito to Wes Anderson.
A team-up of three of the greatest kid-friendly storytellers of all time — Spielberg, Dahl and Disney — seems like a plan that can’t go wrong, right? Again, the answer is a complicated no. In terms of a book-to-movie adaptation, “The BFG” is as faithful as they come, not to mention a technical marvel of today’s motion capture technology. As an engaging story, however, it will sadly only be a delight for the younger demographic (when it should be beloved by all kids and the kids at heart) unless you’re familiar with the source material from 1982. It’s an attempt to recapture the childlike wonder and innocence of “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” — going so far as to hire the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison who wrote the screenplay for “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” — that can’t help be bogged down by a less-than-captivating execution and the overuse of computer-generated effects.
For all its shortcomings, “The BFG” is still a capable modern tale about a lonely, bespectacled orphan named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) living in an orphanage situated in the claustrophobic and foggy streets of London. In Barnhill, Spielberg once again shows his talent for evoking the most from his child actors, especially when they’re acting against green screen most of the time. There’s a one-woman army of cute and tough in the 12-year-old actress, but she’s still no Henry Thomas. Stricken with insomnia, Sophie witnesses something she shouldn’t during the early morning “Witching Hour” and is whisked away to Giant Country by the BFG who fears she would spark a manhunt for him should she be left to her own devices.
The BFG’s home is the place that dreams are made of — literally, because he hunts dreams for a living. Stepping into the larger-than-life role is Mark Rylance who worked with Spielberg only last year in “Bridge of Spies.” One could not be a better fit for the large-eared, mush-mouthed fellow and the special effects make him a dead ringer for Quentin Blake’s original illustrations of the character. Nevertheless, the BFG is a runt among the other gargantuan and bloodthirsty giants who roam outside the Rube Goldberg-esque cave he calls home, and bully him mercilessly. The dastardly list includes: Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), Manhugger, Meatdripper, Childchewer, Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), Maidmasher, Bonecruncher, Gizzardgulper and the Butcher Boy. To make the film more kid-friendly, the movie skates over some of the book’s darker elements like the actual murderous tendencies of these giants who like to devour “human beans” by the bushel.
The BFG, on the other hand, subsists on snozzcumbers, a slimy and bitter vegetable that only grows in Giant Country. Dahl was like the Shakespeare of children’s books in that he created a lexicon of new and ridiculous words that would show up in a lot of his writing. These include snozzcumber, scrumdiddlyumptious and frobscottle, a fizzy drink in which the bubbles go down causing those aforementioned methane-related jokes known as “whizpoppers” in giant vernacular.
Together, Sophie and the BFG bond over their hatred of the murderous giants and their love of dreams, which lead them to a plan that will involve the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) and get rid of the loathsome Goliaths once and for all. The only changes to the plot are a tacked-on tragic backstory for The BFG that isn’t very sad and a new ending that doesn’t do justice to the one in the book. To add to the adventure is the whimsical score of John Williams who does some of his most magical and memorable work since “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial”
One could wonder if “The BFG” would have fared better had it come out in the 1990s along with similar-themed Disney movies like “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” or even if it had been slated for a holiday release away from the heavyweight summer blockbusters.
Whatever the case, I wouldn’t call “The BFG” a ‘giant’ mistake on Spielberg or Disney’s part. While they may not have secured a golden fleece in the form of large box office numbers, they still have a self-contained and enchanting piece of filmmaking that embodies what Spielberg is all about: following your dreams, chasing the impossible and the incomparable magic of going to the movies. While not always hitting the mark, that’s better than a bowl full of snozzcumber Stew for dinner.