What a phizz-whizzing crodscollop of a film! What a whoopsy-splunker!
To say Roald Dahl constructed a unique language for his beloved, big-eared, mild-mannered, towering character in the children’s book The BFG is perhaps overstating it. But the author certainly whipped up a pleasant form of English-sounding gibberish.
Following a decent if ho-hum animated telemovie broadcast in the UK in 1989, Steven Spielberg spectacularly ups the ante – as we always assumed he would – infusing the story with that sticky, big note, gloss-tinted Spielbergian sense of largess.
In a heavily computer-altered motion capture performance, Mark Rylance (who won an Oscar this year for the director’s previous film, Bridge of Spies) plays the famous word-muddled colossal. While there was never doubt Spielberg would bring to the table a Big Movie with gorgeous phantasmagoric sets, it is ultimately the actor’s face audiences will take with them: the poignant look of somebody approaching happiness with caution.
When Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, a fabulously feisty newcomer) questions the jumpsquiffling loner’s grasp of language, he reacts all hurt, as if he was just smacked on the kisser with a rock-hard snozzcumber. BFG concedes that “what I means and what I says is two different things” with a brow-rumpled, forlorn look on his face that seems to apologise for a poorly educated upbringing.
If one were to prescribe an earthly prognosis for the giant’s vocab-jargon, the poor bastard would almost certainly suffer from aphasia – a language disorder that affects a person’s ability to talk and understand spoken word, caused by damage to the brain.
All those blows to the head from his barbarian-like fellow giants (a bunch of perfectly cast, digitally tweaked nasty pasties) must surely be the cause. This gives a sprinkle more gravitas to the overcoming-adversity – and, not uncommon in Dahl land, downright revenge – undercurrents in the storyline.
The child-munching sadists live in a land called Giant Country, where BFG is the only vegetarian. The story is nothing if not a salute to the virtues of the herbivorous, consumption of meat compared to murder and cannibalism of kids.
Perhaps it is also an ode to the benefits of a good night’s rest. Sophie, who describes herself as insomniac, lives in an orphanage and fumbles around in the witching hours, strolling up and down hallways and reading Dickens with a flashlight.
One evening in the dead of night she spots the elusive BFG slink up the neighbourhood: an agile, disappear-into-the-shadows cat burglar kind of fellow (this is particularly impressive given his 24-foot height). Fearing Sophie will babble about the existence of giants and get human beans (as they are known in Giant Country) all curious, he steals her back to his shack and hides her from the others.
BFG’s job (he appears to be self-employed and unpaid, in need of a good union) is catching and disseminating dreams. He catches them using jars and fishing nets, blends them together in his workshop then blows them into the minds of people sleeping at night.
Spielberg hangs the dream-catching scene together with a beautiful, castle in the air sense of wonder, like a child-friendly scene from a Guillermo del Toro film. The dreams move around in different colours, like fluorescent blobs of dyed air. The land where they reside is accessed by jumping into what appears to be a lake; it’s actually a reflection of an inverted below-ground alternate world.
When Sophie sees BFG’s image in the faux water before jumping, beckoning her to follow, it is a charming visual flourish, one of several in the film that play with reflections and projections. Another takes place in a boy’s bedroom, where his dream is projected on the wall adjacent to him, in the form of a kind of shadow play.
This is a vision shared equally by two audiences: those in the cinema and observers in that moment themselves, BFG and Sophie. It is in this spirit the larger narrative unfolds; we are invited to share the experience with them equally, leading to a hopsctochy (this means cheerful in BFG tongue) finale involving the Queen of the United Kingdom and a sprinkle of fart jokes.
The screenplay is a poignant swansong for the late and distinguished writer Melissa Mathison, who also adapted 1995’s The Indian in the Cupboard (another high concept film with a premise pegged on the size of its characters) and wrote E.T. and Kundun.
For all Spielberg’s penchant for large-scale vision, that gravitational pull towards picture book moments, it’s the small touches in BFG that have the biggest impact. It is an elegant, big-thinking film, with plenty of light and dark for young audiences to contemplate.