Before Steven Spielberg became known for directing slightly ponderous historical dramas designed to cement his reputation as a “serious” filmmaker, he was famous for more crowd-pleasing fare.
Perhaps no film defines the early phase of Spielberg’s career better than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was Cannes’s closing night film in 1982. E.T. might be slightly shameless in its upbeat gloss on the sci-fi genre. Still, there’s no denying its powerful allure, even for critics not particularly enamored of Spielberg’s frequently saccharine confections. E.T. appeals to kids on a gut level since it implicitly channels an eternal childhood fantasy: the imaginary companion. E.T. may be, in literal terms, a space alien. But his slightly goofy aura made him the perfect imaginary companion for lonely, as well as not so lonely, kids everywhere.
The BFG, Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel (“a beloved children’s classic,” as they say in the journalism trade) is also essentially an imaginary companion story. So it’s not much of a surprise that Spielberg is at the helm of the film version, which premiered out of competition at Cannes on Saturday. According to parents I’ve met over the years, Dahl’s books are the hands down favorites of all novels geared towards pre-teens.
It’s easy to understand why.
Besides being a skillful storyteller, Dahl’s books are free of moralism or sentimentality and possess an ingratiating touch of vulgarity—there are passages in The BFG devoted exclusively to the joys of farting. The BFG is also notable for its delightful word play. In a sort of kiddie version of the invented language employed by the thuggish protagonists of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Dahl invents a language called Gobblefunk in which human beings are called “Human Beans,’ “delumptious” means “delicious,” and farting becomes “whizzpopping.”
Set in a rather gloomy version of London, Dahl chronicles the eponymous Big Friendly Giant’s decision to snatch 9-year-old Sophie from an orphanage and carry her off to Giant Land. Initially terrified by her kidnapper, she soon learns to view him as a savior who transports her from a dreary institutional home to magical realms.
Spielberg’s film begins inauspiciously. Huge dollops of CGI, not to mention John Williams’s heavy-handed music, obscure the charms of Dahl’s simple story. Eventually, however, some aspects of Dahl’s original conception seep through. The virtuosic Mark Rylance, despite the necessity of filtering his performance though the prism—and to a certain extent the prison— of motion-capture, uses his idiosyncratic talents to embody the melancholy core of this gentle giant. Rylance often assumes a haunted expression that slowly transforms itself into a smile. He mangles the language with aplomb, while giving the impression of a rural Briton who is doing his levelheaded best to speak clearly to a precocious little girl. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill makes for a spunky Sophie, even though this 10-year-old with almost no previous acting experience occasionally seems too well-behaved and docile to be an unhappy survivor of a cruel orphanage.
Melissa Mathison, the late screenwriter also responsible for E.T., while staying largely faithful to the contours of Dahl’s narrative, streamlines its details and embellishes the threat of some of the evil, larger giants who threaten to devour Sophie. (The fearsome Fleshlumpeater is played by The Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement and Bill Hader does what he can with the smaller role of the more cerebral, but equally ferocious, Bloodbottler.) This being a Disney film, the lengthy chapter on Sophie and other children’s dreams, which are recounted by Dahl with a meticulousness Freud would have admired, is transformed into a fairly generic fantasy sequence in which the wonders of Dream Country come off more or less like attractions at a corporate theme park.
As in Dahl’s book, the climatic sequences take place in the Queen’s chambers at Buckingham Palace. Sophie and the BFG, benignly inspired pranksters, make this visit possible with the help of a collaborative dream. These sequences allow Mathison and Spielberg to poke some gentle fun at royalty. It’s all quite innocuous, but Penelope Wilton’s good-humored stab at a kindly Queen Elizabeth with a soft spot for giants—and a puckish sense of humor—is a masterful piece of character acting.
Unsurprisingly, Spielberg’s take on Dahl is unfailingly optimistic. Dahl, a grouchy writer with some ugly prejudices—most notoriously a vile tinge of anti-Semitism—was considerably less cuddly than Spielberg. Yet, at his best, he also offered a more subversive vision of the modern world to his young readers. But, even if Spielberg’s adaptation is slightly bowdlerized, it’s still a film that’s considerably more alluring than many of the dopey movies now hawked as appropriate for children.