They’ll be enthralled. Adults, meanwhile, will have to make do with some charming moments and winning performances from two of the stars.
The BFG, the new 3-D fantasy live-action adventure from Disney, arrives in theaters dripping with Academy Award gravitas. The director and co-producer is Steven Spielberg (multiple winner); the music is by John Williams (multiple winner), and the star is Mark Rylance (winner, Best Supporting Actor, 2016).
Then there is the story’s impressive provenance: it’s based on the 1982 children’s novel of the same name by the late Roald Dahl, a famous and fascinating man in his own right. (He authored Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, was a World War II ace with the Royal Air Force, husband of American actress Patricia Neal, and a world-class philanderer. Check his bio; it’s fascinating reading.)
Rylance plays an elderly giant who is spotted one night by the orphan Sophie (young Ruby Barnhill, part of an outstanding all-English cast) while he is wandering the streets of London blowing dreams into bedroom windows with a huge, trumpet-like instrument. Fearing Sophie will alert authorities of his existence, he kidnaps her and takes her back to his home in Giant Country, where he creates dreams and captures them in glass bowls.
In the quickest onset of the Stockholm syndrome on record, captive and captor fall into a loving niece-and-uncle-like relationship, and Sophie names him, redundantly, Big Friendly Giant, or BFG for short.
His home is a ramshackle cave hideaway, and his diet consists of a foul-tasting and -looking vegetable known as a snozzcumber, which BFG subsists on because he refuses to eat people or steal food from humans, like the other giants.
Sophie and BFG are soon engaged in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with the fearsome but dim-witted giants, as BFG keeps Sophie from their view, lest they eat her. While she hides, the giants make the much smaller BGF their toy, using him as a football and making him a passenger in their version of Demolition Derby. Later, for good measure, they trash his home and his workshop.
Sophie subsequently persuades BFG to accompany her to Buckingham Palace and seek the queen’s help in eradicating the child-eating giants. It’s here that the film picks up, with scenes that compensate adults in the audience for a few earlier sleep-inducing moments.
Much of this uptick can be credited to Penelope Wilton, the 70-year-old actress who plays the queen and whom American audiences will recognize as Isobel Crawley from Downton Abbey. She is a sprightly, humorous, yet authoritative monarch who invites first Sophie, and then BFG, into her home. She is abetted by the always-welcome Rebecca Hall, luminous as her assistant.
A grand and comic dinner ensues, and the ingenuity of the royal staff is put to the test to find seating, utensils and food for the BFG. He brings his own addition to the meal: a fizzy drink called frobscottle, whose bubbles move downward instead of up, causing epic flatulence (“whizpopping” in BFG-speak) among all who imbibe it. The result is a farting fusillade that includes the queen and rivals the beans-and-campfire scene from Blazing Saddles.
After the air-clearing repast, the queen orders the Royal Air Force to help Sophie and BFG subdue the giants. Following some scary moments, the bad guys are captured and helicoptered off to an isolated island, where they are safely (this is a children’s story, after all) deposited and left with a lifetime supply of the loathsome snozzcumbers.
As usual, Disney animation and graphics are superb, especially the meaty and comical giants, and the BFG in particular. Rendered as a spindly, galumphing oaf with huge ears, he has Rylance’s facial features. The Royal Academy product, winner of three Tonys and two Olivier awards, delivers the giant’s lines with pathos or humor, as the occasion demands. As the BFG, he utters nonsense words because, like many in today’s media, he has only a rudimentary grasp of English (sorry, couldn’t resist). Such expressions as “strawbunkles and cream,” “snapper whipper,” “spitzwoggler” and “codswallop” are part of his vernacular, and Rylance speaks the words with his typically laconic authenticity.
Except for a tedious scene where Sophie chases the glowing, Tinker Bell-like dreams, the movie will hold most children rapt. Adults will have to make do with strawbunkles and the like, and winning performances by Rylance and Wilton.