Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
A friend loves at all times, and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.
Steven Spielberg reverts from his recent historical film genre back to that in which he also has proved to be a master, that of the world of children and their vulnerability. Adapting Roald Dahl’s beloved novel, the late Melissa Mathison serves the director well, as she did with her screenplay for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The new film is a delight for young and old, and it even overcame my long-held distaste for fart jokes. Also, from what others have written (I haven’t read the book), the film is not nearly as dark as its source—which was the same case with one of my favorite Spielberg films Empire of the Sun, about a boy in Japanese-occupied China, seperated from his parents and thus left to fend for himself in an internment camp.
10-year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan who reads by flashlight after lights-out, looks out a window and spies a shadowy figure stalking the London streets. This is no ordinary figure, but one that is 24 feet high. He also sees her, and reaches his huge hand into the dormitory to snatch her, covers and all. He runs and runs, eventually arriving at his home in Giant Country.
The poor girl fears that she is about to be eaten by him, but he says that he is not a cannybal like his neighbors, but a friendly giant. His diet consists of the only vegetable that grows in Giant Land, Snozzcumbers, from which he concocts a stew that neither looks, smells, nor tastes appetizing. I suspect that even pigs back in England would turn up their snouts at them.
In Giant Land The BFG, as Sophie comes to call him, is as much an outsider as was the book-loving orphan back in London. He is actually a runt compared to the neighbors who tower over him and have such menace-sounding names as Fleshlumpeater, Bonecruncher and Meatdripper. All preferring humans in their diets, they are the cause for the frequent disapperance of children reported in the London newspapers.
The giant leader Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) possesses a keen nose for human scent, so he breaks into The BFG’s cave, demanding to know where the human is. His search is both suspenseful and funny, with Sophie dashing around, barely keeping out of sight. At one point she has no choice but to crawl into the stinky, sticky interior of a large Snozzcumber. Fleshlumpeater picks it up for a bite, but even he is repulsed by the vegetable, and so spits it out. When he leaves, The BGF washes the thoroughly soiled girl. He tells her that she will have to stay with him forever because he cannot have her revealing his existence to other humans. During their conversation she asks, “Why did you take me?” He replies, “Because I hears your lonely heart, in all the secret whisperings of the world.” We soon see they are kindred souls, outcasts of society by the way the giants treat The GFB, in one case tossing him around as if he were a ball.
The fart humor enters the picture when The BFG shares with her a fizzy drink called frobscottle. It is a green effervescent drink in which the bubbles sink to the bottom rather than rise to the top. When Sophie points this out, her friend says that this causes in the drinker “Whizpopping,” a flatulence that is far louder and more powerful than anything caused by beans. Like him, she finds it great fun.
In a mirror-reversal of the world The BFG shows Sophie how he catches with his “butteryfly” net the bright little orbs of light that are dreams. He places them in bottles, storing them for his regular trips into London. The giants sneak around at night to destroy children, whereas he distributes dreams to children via the long brass horn he carries. He tells her that he knows this does not stop the predatory giants, but being relatively powerless against them, “It be as good as I can do.”
While conversing about how they might stop the giants from snatching and eating children, Sophie comes up with a plan involving Queen Elizabeth (Penelope Wilton). This leads to the scene that will remain for a long time as the Mother of All Fart Jokes. Agreeing to an audience with Sophie and The BFG, she has one of the tall-ceiling halls fitted with a table tall enough for her guest, with Sophie sitting at a smaller table with her. Of course, The BFG has brought along for sharing a big supply of “Whizpopping,” enough even for her beloved Welsh corgi dogs. I will leave it for you to discover the delightful mayhem that results from everyone imbibing the potent potion.
The film might not be as poignant as E.T., but it shows that the master director has not lost his touch in directing children and telling their outsider story. Young Ruby Barnhill is just right for the plucky orphan. She is cute but not cutesy. (I shudder to think what Shirley Temple would have done to the role had the film been made in the 30s!)
However, the film really belongs to the actor who won a supporting actor Oscar in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance. His kind face and expressive eyes are recognizable despite the computer-enhanced size and the elephantine ears given him. He easily conveys his outsider loneliness among the vicious giants, and thus his longing for a companion. His anxiety for her welfare is heightened in the scene in which he tells her who once owned the red jacket she now wears. His desire to make up for the evil inflicted by his more powerful kindred is beautifully summed up in the already quoted, “It be as good as I can do.” This reminded me of my favorite scene from Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously in which the dwarf photographer Billy Kwan tells the jaded reporter Guy that even though his charity to the poor is “just a drop in the ocean” of the sea of misery, he does the little good that he can.
The nonviolent come-uppance of the evil giants is also commendable, especially compared to the ways in which the multitude of the summer’s superheroes dispatch their adversaries. With the Queen’s combined armed forces on display, the fate of the villains could have been a very fiery, cinematic one. I think that believers in the Prince of Peace and his ways, as well as all who favor alternatives to violence, will be pleased.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July 2016 issue of VP.