'The BFG' Eschews Story for Effects

Dir. Steven Spielberg—3.5 STARS

{shortcode-3f5d81f16f90cd45c4aad28867859e82040f8a2b}Roald Dahl was well known for refusing to treat the young heroes of his novels like children, opting instead to present them with candidly harsh situations and challenges. His pre-pubescent leads were certainly up for the task. Indeed, they were almost always wiser and more moral than their adult counterparts.

As a director, Steven Spielberg has at times shown himself to be a similar breed of storyteller. Films like “E.T.” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” have painted worlds in which intelligent and incorruptible young protagonists must confront evils that a cynical and jaded adult society alone never could. Given these similarities, it seems only fitting that the renowned director should finally take on the task of adapting a Roald Dahl classic.

Originally published in 1982, “The BFG” recounts the fantastical tale of a young girl named Sophie who befriends a kind-hearted and peaceful giant—the aptly-named “Big Friendly Giant,” or simply BFG. Together, Sophie and the BFG embark on a quest to rid the world of the latter’s more ferocious and carnivorous brethren, enlisting the help of the Queen of England in the process.

Spielberg’s rendition is quite faithful to the original, directly borrowing certain lines and employing the BFG’s trademark Dahlian neologisms to great effect. Like most recent adaptations of Dahl’s work, however (Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” being the prime example), “The BFG” suffers from too much attention to Dahl’s distinctive visual style and not nearly enough on the narrative purity which made his stories timeless fairy tales.

Thanks to advances in CGI technology, the film succeeds in effortlessly bringing the beautiful world of “Giant Country” to life. In particular, the BFG himself, portrayed by Mark Rylance using motion-capture technology, is stunningly reminiscent of the original Quentin Blake illustrations found in Dahl’s novel. Needless to say, fans of the book will likely find the world of “The BFG” exactly as they imagined it.


Rylance, who recently won an Oscar working with Spielberg in “The Bridge of Spies” (and who will be teaming up with Spielberg again on his next film, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”) turns in an admirable performance as the titular giant, granting the character a real sense of humanity and fragility. Eleven-year-old Ruby Barnhill is similarly well cast as the precocious little Sophie. As Mara Wilson did on the set of “Matilda” 20 years ago, Barnill deftly handles the tall order of portraying a child who is truly an old soul. The combined efforts of the film’s two lead actors, however, are not enough to render the film a classic on the level of its source material. The film’s over-emphasis on visual flair serves to distract viewers from the story itself, and there are many instances in which effects both more practical and more subtle would have lessened the damage.

In “Cinderella” and this year’s “Jungle Book,” Disney was able to strike the perfect balance between unadulterated fantasy and computer-generated wonder. “The BFG” is a charming and captivating spectacle with strong performances to boot, but unfortunately it is unable to find similarly stable ground.

—Staff writer Steven S.K. Hao can be reached at


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