Steven Spielberg teams with Disney for the first time, adapting Roald Dahl’s classic children’s fable from a screenplay by Melissa E.T. Mathison? With that much pedigree, The BFG can only disappoint. Only it doesn’t, it delights, with the 69-year-old director showing that his imagination remains vast and spry as he returns to the kind of old-fashioned storytelling married to state-of-the-art-effects that made him the wunderkind of ’70s/’80s blockbuster cinema.
A couple of minutes’ worth of drunken revelry outside an olde-worlde pub aside (“I’m bladdered,” remarks one bloke as he sways on the cobbled street), The BFG, like the 1982 book it’s based on, dives straight into the story. No sooner has Sophie (11-year-old newcomer Ruby Barnhill, excellent) leaned out of an upstairs window of her orphanage to tell these drunkards to pipe down, than she spies a 24ft giant (Mark Rylance) tiptoeing up the road. Worse, he spies her too.
Reaching over her bed with a hand the size of a Mini Cooper, he plucks her cowering, quaking form and hightails it back to Giant Country to prepare a feast. Fortunately, Sophie is not the key ingredient, for unlike his 50ft brethren whose dietary preferences are made clear by names like Freshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) and Meatdripper (Paul Moniz de Sa), this half-sized ‘runt’ is a Big Friendly Giant who subsists on a vegan diet of yucky snozzcumbers washed down with yummy, fizzy frobscottle – good for brewing thunderous farts and even better for the health of children.
And so Sophie and The BFG become BFFs, though the threat to both is considerable when Fleshlumpeater and the rest of the odious ogres sniff out the presence of a human ‘bean’. Sophie’s solution? To enlist the help of Her Majesty The Queen (Penelope Wilton on scene-stealing form).
There is not, truth be told, a great deal of plot in Dahl’s classic, and it is to Spielberg and Mathison’s credit that they feel little need to pad it. For the most part this is a two-hander between lost souls getting to know and trust one another (echoes of E.T.); the director is right to call it a love story. Luckily for us, both Sophie and The BFG are chatbags, and it is a particular pleasure to hear Mark Rylance bring the same feeling to The BFG’s Gobblefunk language as he brings to Shakespearean prose.
If anything, his performance here is superior to the one that bagged him an Oscar in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, with motion-capture effects now developed to the point that it really is Rylance’s kind, sorrowful eyes twinkling up there on the screen, albeit the size of dinner plates. Each close-up is nothing short of miraculous, with every hair, crinkle and pore detected and rendered. And while long shots of The BFG striding through the countryside are not 100 per cent there yet, the heightened tone of the action excuses any fleetingly cartoonish moments.
Teaming with DOP Janusz Kaminski for the 15th time, Spielberg finds inventive visuals to match the gobbledegook verbals, most notably during an enchanting sojourn to Dream Country. Yes, there’s a hint of Avatar’s Pandora to the bioluminescence of the flora and fauna, and sure, there’s a distinctly Potter-esque vibe to the blue-lit early scenes at the picturesque orphanage: blockbuster family entertainment has modified its visual language since Spielberg moulded it, and he’s happy to take trends on board. But watching our terrific twosome net dreams like fireflies and trap them in jars ready for The BFG to puff them into children’s bedrooms through a trumpet is pure magic.
The best, though, is still to come, with The BFG going up a level the moment it reaches Buckingham Palace. There it becomes a laugh-out-loud comedy of manners, replete with The Queen and her beloved Corgis all cracking off almighty ‘whizzpoppers’ after being introduced to the delights of Frobscottle.
The BFG is not about to join the likes of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. among the director’s definitive work, but it is a thing of wonder, deserving of Spielberg’s name, and Dahl’s, and Mathison’s, to whom it is dedicated following her sad passing in 2015. A beguiling, potent tale that will make snapperwhippers of even the most surly adults, it is, in a big word favoured by its even bigger-hearted hero, scrumdiddlyumptious.