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Giants in the Earth

Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg
Walt Disney Studios
 117 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Steven Spielberg 
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill

Roald Dahl’s children’s stories were known for their surprisingly adult look at evil and violence. The books invariably contained sinister adult characters who often committed rather gruesome deeds. While the forces of good would triumph in the end, Dahl reminded children that the world can be a dark place at times. Steven Spielberg’s movies intended for families, most notably E.T., soft pedaled the concept of evil in favor of an overall cheerful and uplifting outlook (one that often found its way into the resolution of his adult movies as well). Spielberg’s latest film, The BFG, is his first effort at taking on a Dahl work, and the competing visions of writer and director don’t always mesh. One thing that does mesh, however, is the sense of visual wonder that has been a key component of both Spielberg’s and Dahl’s works.


The plot of The BFG is fairly faithful to Dahl’s book. A young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) sees an actual giant (Rylance) walking the streets of London one night and winds up being kidnapped and taken to Giant Country. At first, Sophie is understandably terrified, but, as she gradually gets to know the giant, whom she calls BFG (for “big friendly giant”), she realizes he is kindly and lonely, and the two become friends.


Sophie also discovers that BFG, although he’s about 25 feet tall, isn’t the only giant around. Eight other giants live there, bullying brutes twice the size of BFG, with names like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and Childchewer. As the latter name suggests, these larger giants do dine on the children they kidnap, unlike the vegetarian BFG, who willingly subsists on a diet of a disgusting rotting vegetable called a snozzcumber.


BFG differs from the other giants in a number of ways besides his diet and smaller size. While the others essentially do nothing all day other than engage in destructive rough housing and athletic contests, BFG is somewhat of a scientist. Over the years (the giants are centuries old), he has captured a variety of dreams (which look like fireflies), catalogued them, and put them in jars. His reasons for visiting London aren’t to find the next day’s dinner but, rather, to give out good dreams to children who need them. 


Eventually, Sophie persuades BFG to take her back to England, partly to avoid being discovered by the other giants and partly to enlist the aid of Queen Elizabeth (Penelope Wilton) to stop the evil giants from preying on children. The Queen takes a bit of convincing, but, after seeing BFG, she invites the giant to lunch at Buckingham Palace (in the scene shown below). Afterwards, the Queen literally sends in the Army in attack helicopters to capture the other giants, with the help of Sophie and BFG.


Any discussion of The BFG has to begin with the visual effects. The movie takes the art of motion capture animation, best known for transforming Andy Serkis into Gollum and an ape, and expands it, literally, to turn actor Mark Rylance into a giant. Unlike other motion capture characters in recent years, Rylance’s face, although tweaked and stretched, is still unmistakably his, and the emotions he portrays, including the wistful melancholy look of his character, register in a way not even Serkis was able to accomplish. The result is stunning; BFG’s movements and facial expressions when he interacts with Sophie are the most lifelike seen in any movie to date. Those who remember the ghastly appearance of Tom Hanks in The Polar Express just a decade ago will marvel at the state of the computer animation art.


Steven Spielberg wanted to make The BFG some 20 years ago (Robin Williams was associated with the project for a while), but the technology simply wasn’t there yet. Finally, in 2016, Spielberg can do justice to Dahl’s imagination. In addition to BFG himself, Giant Country and Dream Country are exquisitely rendered as well. Children who watch the movie (and more than a few adults as well) will feel as if Sophie is actually communicating with a 25-foot-tall giant.


But, while Spielberg does justice to Dahl’s work from a technical standpoint, the script by Mellisa Mathison (completed shortly before her death) does not. Spielberg and Mathison tone down the darker elements of Dahl’s work so that there’s no real danger. The evil giants are brutish but rather stupid and clumsy schoolyard bullies, and there’s never any sense that Sophie is in real danger. The movie also glosses over another important plot point, namely that BFG befriended another child back in the 1800’s but was unable to save the boy from being eaten by the others. Children may well miss the point entirely, and adults might not appreciate its significance; in the book, BFG is haunted by his failure to protect the boy, which explains his melancholy mood.


One thing that Mathison’s script does capture is Dahl’s playful use of words. BFG has a most unusual manner of speaking, reversing and combining words random to form nonsense words that nonetheless manage to be quite descriptive. These include “gobblefunk,” the language that BFG speaks, “frobscottle,” his favorite beverage whose bubbles sink to the bottom, and “whizzpopping,” the natural biological result of drinking frobscottle. The BFG provides some examples of whizzpopping, but, unlike most fart humor in kid’s films, the jokes here are quite playful and clever.


The best example of whizzpopping occurs when the Queen’s corgis have a taste of frobscottle and turn into whizzpop propelled rockets, scooting around the floor of Buckingham Palace. That’s just one of the delightful jokes in the Palace sequence, by far the funniest in the movie. Spielberg trots out one great sight gag after another as BFG tries to enjoy lunch with the Queen, and the Palace staff has to figure out how best to serve him. Scenes like this capture the playful nature of Dahl’s book perfectly.


The BFG can best be described as a charming story, nice and often visually stunning, but not truly magical, certainly not as magical as Dahl’s book. To make matters worse, the first half of the film occasionally drags; once the audience gets accustomed to the bizarre perspective, not much happens for quite a while. The sequence in Buckingham Palace and some other visuals (like the ways that BFG is able to camouflage himself while moving around the city at night) showcase Spielberg’s talent and the film’s potential, but it never fully achieves those lofty. At best, The BFG is a somewhat modest, friendly movie.

In this scene, Mark Rylance visits Buckingham Palace in preparation for his lunch with the Queen. 

Read other reviews of The BFG:


The BFG (2016) on IMDb