The BFG (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little girl and her big friendly giant

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“The BFG” is a flawed but pleasant fairy tale with a number of good elements to admire. Although you may become impatient with its rather thin plot and loose narrative pace, the movie is not entirely without charm and wonder as supported by its endearing lead performance, and I enjoyed its nice visual moments even while clearly recognizing its weak aspects.

The opening scene of the movie introduces us to Sophie (Ruby Barhhill), a little girl living in a London orphanage whose interior and surroundings are amusingly Dickensian in contrast to the modern background of the story. While she stays awake during one late night due to her insomnia, she hears some noises from the outside, so she looks out the window and then happens to spot a giant on the corner of the street near the orphanage. The giant also notices her at that very moment, and she soon finds herself grabbed by his big hand and then swiftly taken far, far away from London.

He takes Sophie to Giant Country, where he and other nine giants have lived for a long time. She naturally becomes scared when she confronts the giant in his place, but the giant, played by Mark Rylance in his first attempt of motion capture performance, turns out to be a gentle, eccentric old guy who does not eat ‘human beans’ unlike other giants. He took Sophie to his place just because he worried that Sophie might tell other people about him, and Sophie comes to see that he means no harm to her. He may keep her in his place for the rest of her life, but he certainly does not want her to be eaten by other giants, who will not mind having Sophie for a snack if they ever see or smell her.

As they spend more time together, Sophie and the giant, who is eventually called the ‘Big Friendly Giant’ or BFG, get close to each other as two different loners. While Sophie has no friend in her orphanage, BFG has been alienated from other giants just because he is far smaller than them. As they come to depend on each other more than expected, BFG becomes a sort of grandfather figure to Sophie, and Sophie brings some lively spirit into BFG’s lonely life.

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The best moments in the movie come from when BFG shows Sophie small and big wonders he has kept to himself for many years. His hidden private space is filled with many different kinds of collected dreams, which are presented as shiny, colorful floating matters contained in glass jars. While some of them feel as good as your average pleasant dream, others feel as bad as your typical terrible nightmare, and they also can be mixed together for concocting a more complex type of dream.

These dreams originated from Dream Country, a magical realm located not so far from Giant Country. When Sophie enters this region along with her friend, the movie gives us an enchanting sight of various dreams generated from a big mysterious tree, and then we get a lovely moment when BFG imbues a nice piece of dream into the sleeping mind of one boy and his parents. The content of the dream in question is presented in a simplistic way on the screen, but this moment is accompanied with the sense of wonder and curiosity as BFG and Sophie watch its effect together, and Rylance is effortlessly engaging as his character earnestly describes its progress to his little friend.

Around its third act, the movie becomes a little darker as BFG and Sophie are more threatened by other giants including Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), the biggest and meanest of the bunch. For her friend as well as herself, Sophie conceives a plan which may work, but it requires BFG to be more active and confident than before, and, not so surprisingly, he is reluctant about that.

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The adapted screenplay by late Melissa Mathison, which is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name, maintains its leisurely narrative pace even at this point, and that is a wise choice considering its anti-climactic finale where everything is resolved a little too neatly. I am not wholly satisfied with this part, but I must admit that I was amused by the absurd encounter between BFG and several human characters who appear later in the story. I will not go into details here, but let’s say that I liked how the director Steven Spielberg goes for an outrageous moment of broad humor at one point – and how he and his performers keep everything straight for more comic effects during that moment.

Above all, it is really a pleasure to see how Rylance ably carries the movie to the end. When this renowned British stage actor drew more of our attention thanks to his Oscar-winning supporting turn in Spielberg’s previous film “Bridge of Spies” (2015), I commented that we would see a lot more from him in the next following years, and his wonderfully nuanced performance in “The BFG” surely confirms my prediction. While deftly capturing the comic sides of his character, he gently embodies his character’s more serious and thoughtful sides, and he is also convincing in his on-screen interactions with his co-star Ruby Barnhill, who holds her own place well with her plucky performance.

Although it is far less edgy compared to other notable adaptations of Dahl’s works such as “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971) or “James and the Giant Peach” (1996), “The BFG” is still a likable family film which is as benign and sentimental as a Spielberg movie can be. Mainly because it does not reach to the level of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestial” (1982), it will probably be remembered as a minor work from Spielberg, but even a minor Spielberg film is more interesting than most of movies out there – and you will certainly not forget how Rylance brings a human touch of class to the movie.

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