It’s always a sorry state of affairs when a really good movie tanks at the box office on account of slipshod marketing. As of its first weekend of release, that unhappy fate seems about to befall Steven Spielberg’s latest effort: an excellent live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s modern children’s classic, The BFG. If audiences all get together and generate some positive word-of-mouth, maybe we can still save this quirky, worthy product from the Hollywood scrap heap.
The irony of The BFG’s predicament is that part of the reason for its failure to draw moviegoers over the Fourth of July weekend is the fact that it was competing for eyeballs with another very popular movie pitched at families and children, Finding Dory. To be more precise, what’s ironic about that is the fact that The BFG is actually a much more impressive film. Its stars aren’t as well-known in the US, and its pacing is somewhat more gentle; but it’s easily as heartstring-tugging and notably more impressive visually.
In all likelihood, a significant factor in the marketing effort’s failure to engage is the title. In 1982, when Dahl’s novel was written, there was no Internet, and nobody would have confused the acronym BFG with, say, OMFG. So let’s be clear from the get-go that The BFG means the Big Friendly Giant. No effing anything involved (although there are definitely flatulence jokes, but they’re very British in tone, so more elevated – literally – than most movie humor of that sort).
The BFG is the tale of Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a smart, lonely orphan who stays up all night and claims never to dream. One night she spots a giant who is skulking around the neighborhood of her austere London orphanage, puffing pleasant dreams at sleepers with a long brass trombonish-looking object. Knowing that his cover has been blown, the BFG (Mark Rylance) reaches a huge hand into the dormitory and carries Sophie off to Giant Country.
As it turns out, her abductor is a sweet, bashful, benevolent vegetarian who brings dreams to people as his way of compensating for the depredations of nine much-larger giants, who eat “human beans” and call the BFG “Runty.” The little girl and the BFG quickly bond, and he tries his best to keep her hidden from his anthropophagous neighbors. In turn, bossy Sophie urges her new giant friend to stop putting up with the constant bullying from the larger giants that has become part of his daily routine. Eventually the danger heats up to the point where Sophie decides to take their cause to the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), with the BFG concocting a particularly scary nightmare about children being eaten to persuade “Her Magister” to help confine the evil giants someplace safe.
This being a Roald Dahl story, it’s plenty dark for a children’s story – especially when Sophie, exploring the BFG’s lair, figures out the fate of a boy who had been a previous guest. But although it has its frightening moments, The BFG is mostly as kid-friendly as its title character. There’s tremendous warmth and tenderness in the story of the friendship that gradually unfolds between these two very different beings who barely speak the same language. The BFG’s English is liberally peppered with almost-words and gross mispronunciations that keep things as fizzy and lively as a bottle of frobscottle.
But The BFG’s most compelling attractions are the visuals, which stake out a gorgeous, hitherto-unexplored wonderland poised halfway between live-action and CGI. This is no skin-crawly motion-capture failure like The Polar Express; the borders between real and simulated images are absolutely seamless. The giant himself looks partly like Quentin Blake’s charming wiggly-line illustrations from the original books and partly like Mark Rylance himself. London’s gloomy nighttime streets and alleyways, the BFG’s delightful contraption-filled cavern and especially Dream Country, where he takes Sophie on a magical hunt for fizzy, whizzy dreams that drip from the Aurora Borealis into an upside-down pond, are truly wondrous to behold. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography made my jaw drop again and again, in ways that Finding Dory might have but never did. It wants a big screen to do the visuals true justice, and a good sound system to optimize John Williams’ most magical scoring since the early Harry Potter films.
The BFG deserves a happier ending than the one that the movie trade publications are predicting. Help rescue him by scooping up your own favorite littl’uns (with their parents’ permission, of course), or even just another grownup with a heart and an imagination, and go see it now, before it disappears back into Dream Country.