Consider Oliver Twist, with his sad, outstretched grub tin, twitching to break into song. Or Sara Crewe, shivering in the attic – so plucky, so ringlet-curled. Movies have a habit of making cute, these lonely orphans of Brit lit. You get the feeling that The BFG’s Sophie (Barnhill), a pert little moppet with a healthy sense of outrage, would spit out the word “cute” like it’s an egg salad sandwich that’s turned. A chronic insomniac, she passes her nights in the orphanage sorting mail, reading Dickens, and shouting “oi!” at village drunks, roistering in the street, to pipe down. She’s a nocturnal beast. How then could she not be drawn to a giant (Rylance) who forages dreams for a living, then blows them like kisses into the slumber of children?
But not right away. Anyone who’s read the first chapters of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book knows Sophie’s primary worry upon his first acquaintance is that she’s what’s for dinner. Lucky for her, the BFG – that’s short for Big Friendly Giant – is the only vegetarian in all of Giant Country. Keeping her safe from his kinfolk, a brutish and bullying clan sniffing the air for “human beans,” fast becomes the BFG’s rather touching raison d’être.
A lauded Shakespearean actor and adapter who won an Oscar last year for his collaboration with director Steven Spielberg on Bridge of Spies, Rylance portrays the body (via motion-capture) and certainly soul of this gentle giant. In his mournful, lyrical cadence, he makes poetry out of the BFG’s gobbledygook command of English. The digital effects aren’t as convincing. In repose, the BFG is pretty nifty (those age spots!), but in motion, he looks considerably more fake, recalling the last-gen, “uncanny valley” of Robert Zemeckis’ early-Aughts films for Disney.
Better served by the CGI is scale, a topic very much of interest to children eyeballing a big, big world that doesn’t play to their size. It’s totally delightful, watching Sophie navigate the BFG’s home turf, where a spool of thread is the size of her head and a spin in his dipping bowl is like Disneyland’s teacup ride without the safety bar, or the inverse, as the BFG scooches on hands and knees into Buckingham Palace.
For a while, I wondered if The BFG would amount to anything more than the imagination-riot of its wondrously wonky perspective, and its two singular performances from Rylance and Barnhill, a stern spitfire in her first major role. But the story, plodgy at first, stole over me, especially after the BFG takes Sophie and his butterfly net to the land of flittering dreams, where enchantment and the ugliness that beasts of all stripes are capable of share the same space. The late screenwriter Melissa Mathison – in her last screen credit, tracing some of the same themes and ineffable magic as in her script for E.T. – imbues an admirable old-fashionedness into this family picture: in its pacing, the relief of no rat-a-tat quipping, and in its mostly timeless time stamp, which allows for a throwaway goof about Reagan and Yeltsin that is swiftly forgotten by the ageless ballast of a good fart joke.
A note to parents: Mid-film, Sophie dives into a trust fall that might be worth discussing with impressionable little ones, lest they copycat. Normally, I wouldn’t point that out – plenty of cartoons defy physics and just plain common sense, and I never think to shout “Danger!” there. But this kind giant transcends his CGI limitations to feel quite real, and like a devoted friend. Who could blame a child for believing he’ll be there to catch her when she falls?
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