Fresh from Oscar success in historical drama Bridge Of Spies, actor Mark Rylance returns to the big screen for something much lighter this time round. The actor reunited with the film's director Steven Spielberg for a live-action interpretation of Roald Dahl's well-loved children's novel, The BFG, complete with Disney flair.
Like the book, the film centres on young orphaned girl Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who gets whisked off to a magical land by the Big Friendly Giant, when she spots him sneaking about in London during the wee hours of the morning. Luckily for Sophie, despite his intimidating appearance, her new acquaintance turns out to be a kind-hearted soul, rejected by his fellow giants because he refuses to eat children like they do, snacking instead on gross-looking vegetables called snozzcumbers.
As the pair become unlikely friends, other giants around the BFG's home – appropriately named Bloodbottler, Butcher Boy and Fleshlumpeater become increasingly suspicious that the BFG is harbouring human Sophie, forcing the duo to combine their skills to thwart the gang of bullies. With the help of Her Majesty The Queen of course, however.
Audience attitudes to remakes seem to have reached an all-time low. However if the revisit adds something extra to the original tale, is it not worth telling? Unfortunately, this is one of the only areas that Spielberg's interpretation of Dahl's classic story comes up a little short.
In terms of visuals, bringing the BFG, Dream Country and all of the other aspects of the tale into the real world is inspired and undoubtedly amplifies the magic of the novel tenfold – seeing a cloaked BFG dancing around in the shadows of old London will make your hair stand up on end. When it comes to what actually happens onscreen, however, the film plays it a little safe. At its heart, The BFG is simply a story about believing in yourself, accepting others and yet, on the surface, two kindred spirits. There's not a whole lot that happens and it shows in a film of this scale.
It's likely that screenwriter Melissa Mathison and Spielberg were reluctant to tinker with Dahl's original vision, which is understandable, but it's easy to see the existing plot would have been in good hands if they were brave enough to. On the occasion they elaborate on an existing scene – such as a truly laugh-out-loud moment which sees the Queen (Penelope Wilton), her staff and even her Corgis letting off some almighty 'whizz poppers' after drinking some 'frobscottle' and another which centres around the child-eating giants tormenting the BFG with the use of some old-school cars – the movie excels and becomes much more fun and engaging. You can't help but wonder how thrilling the film would have been if they'd exercised more of the same.
Just as the BFG often bumbles with his vocabulary, the decision to err away from the darker elements of Dahl's story causes problems when it comes to pacing. Sure, the BFG keeps telling Sophie that the other creatures in Giant Country would eat her if they had the chance but while Dahl's giants were genuinely terrifying, the ones presented by Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader and co provide more comic relief than antagonist angst. This leaves audiences unable to feel any sense of urgency and threat, which can cause the pace of the movie to slow significantly. But luckily, this never lasts for long.
The film is a technical marvel, as gloriously detailed motion-capture technology picks up on Rylance's eyes and endearing smile alongside each sentence he utters. Despite his size, the BFG has never been a larger-than-life character, expressing himself most through his confused words, his subtle and silent gestures – such as setting up a cosy nest for Sophie to sleep in. Even his big, wiggly ears which, combined with Rylance's sweet, nuanced performance, makes him unbelievably wonderful to watch.
In the movie, the BFG's gift is being so attuned with the world that he can hear everything from ladybirds conversing and spiders spinning to lonely hearts calling out for company – a profoundly beautiful metaphor for empathy - and to be able to make his completely CGI character connect so humanly with the viewer like he does just proves Rylance's impressive skill.
While he may offer up the best performance in the movie though, his young co-star Barnhill certainly gives him a run for his money. Her inquisitive, plucky and endlessly chatty Sophie teeters the line perfectly between precocious and caring. Sophie is presented as a 10-year-old who is just as believable as a girl desperately searching for a forever home aswell as a daring heroine. Hers and Rylance's natural chemistry is palpable too; their teasing yet respectful friendship throughout the movie builds, bringing out the best in each other.
Even if it's not all that 'exciting', at the end of the day, The BFG is largely about two different souls from completely alternative worlds coming together and making each other feel comfortable with who they are – navigating each other towards potential happy endings. It's a tale similar to a previous Mathison and Spielberg's collaboration – a little-known movie called E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Just as that film had heart and loveliness by the bucketload, as does The BFG.