I will be the first to admit that I don’t trust anyone that says they don’t like Roald Dahl. The man is perhaps the greatest storyteller of all time, and his books shaped the childhoods of millions of people worldwide, yours truly included. Dahl was an absolute master at writing stories that would live on for generations, because they were a seamless blend of whimsy, magic, humour and absolute brilliance. He has also not been an unfamiliar entity in cinema – a few of his films have been made into films, such as the terrifying The Witches, the amusingly lovely Matilda and two adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, probably his very best book, The BFG, was strangely absent from cinemas (a mediocre animated version was produced for television). The BFG was intended to be a film for many years – and spent those years in development hell. It feels safe to say there was only one man who could do the impossible and bring The BFG to life, and make it as magical as Dahl’s book – that man is Steven Spielberg, the very name that implies more than any other name in cinema could.
I am admittedly not the biggest fan of Steven Spielberg – I don’t dislike him by any means, but I just find some of his bigger and more well-known films are hardly as special as their status suggests they are (I credit this to an unfortunate showing of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial when I was very young), and I felt that Spielberg was often an overrated and overpraised filmmaker. However, he truly impressed me last year with Bridge of Spies, a tense and classy Cold War thriller that had amazing performances from Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. I didn’t think I would be outright amazed by Spielberg again any time soon. I also didn’t think I’d adore a children’s film made by Spielberg, and considering I really disliked The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I wasn’t so sure I could trust Spielberg with one of my childhood heroes. However, Spielberg proved that he is capable of making something truly extraordinary (but is that news to anyone?), and while The BFG might not be his best film, it shows exactly why Spielberg is a master of cinema.
In Bridge of Spies, Spielberg did something I truly admire – he took Mark Rylance, one of the greatest stage actors of this generation, and gave him a major supporting role in his historical thriller – as someone who is a massive fan of Rylance, it gave Rylance the cinematic breakthrough he deserved, and those who aren’t able to see Rylance on stage are able to see him bring his talents to the screen, which broadens his visibility and as a result, his appeal. Spielberg also managed to direct Rylance to an Academy Award win for his subtle and intriguing performance as Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies, which is one of my favorite winners in this category. Spielberg is great at spotting talent, and getting something new out of actors that we didn’t expect. I would never expected, a year ago, to be discussing Mark Rylance as an Academy Award-winning actor, and nothing makes me happier than that fact.
Spielberg, unlike many of his contemporaries, has never really had a muse, but I think it is safe to assume that Rylance is Spielberg’s best collaborator, and Spielberg clearly sees the brilliance in Rylance, because he gave him the leading role in a film that will surely do very well, and continue to allow Rylance’s star to rise. The BFG is a role absolutely any actor would kill for, but in the end, the role went to Rylance, who may not be as big of a name as some of the other actors previously touted for the role (including the legendary Robin Williams), but he was perfect for the role. Rylance has a great gentleness to his acting, and he genuinely seems like the most sweet and endearing performer. He has the personality perfect for the titular role in The BFG, and through some visually dazzling motion-capture technology, Rylance proved himself through one of the most innovative forms of acting. Rylance is most certainly going to become one of cinema’s most endearing figures, and it is an absolute joy to watch his career skyrocket like this, and despite being close to his twilight years, Rylance is only getting better, and proving the old tautology of “better late than never”.
Rylance is only half of what makes this film successful. It is difficult to play second-fiddle to a 24-foot CGI giant, but it also takes a special kind of performer. Ruby Barnhill is another child actor revelation that does fantastically well in such a high-scale production. Her character, Sophie, is the heart and soul of the film, and it is as much about her and her experiences growing up as it is about the BFG. Barnhill may be slightly weak at times, but she is otherwise very good, and handles the film very well. Between The BFG and The Jungle Book, this year is showing us a great amount of new talent in big productions, and Barnhill has a lot of potential. I wish her the very best, because her performance in The BFG shows a young actress with a great future ahead of her, and I truly adore seeing these breakout performances.
Other than Rylance and Barnhill, the film has a very good supporting cast, but which really only serve the purpose of driving the plot forward. A particularly bright part of this film was the casting of Dame Penelope Wilton as The Queen, a small but very meaningful performance that carries a lot of weight, mainly because the character is responsible for some of the funniest moments in the film. It was lovely that Wilton, one of the most underappreciated character actresses working today, got the role over the expected choices of Helen Mirren or Judi Dench. Wilton was great, and I thought she did a fantastic job of making The Queen an interesting character, and fitting well into the universe Spielberg created.
In his Academy Award acceptance speech (I honestly cannot get over the fact that one of the finest actors of our time has been given the recognition his talents deserve), Mark Rylance called Steven Spielberg “one of the greatest storytellers of our time” – and whether or not you like him, you have to agree that Spielberg is indeed one of the great masters of cinema – he may have made a few duds, and some overrated films, but all of his films benefit greatly from Spielberg’s magical touch and meaningful direction. The BFG is not exception – it is the perfect collision between two of the greatest artists in their field – Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg were made for each other – they both produce pieces that are far more mesmerizing and meaningful than the majority of what is in the canon at the time, and they live on forever. Both of them were at the top of their games throughout their creative careers, and one can only hope that Spielberg is remembered as fondly as Dahl is – and to Spielberg’s credit, he’s the filmmaker who can seemlessly switch from a grueling Holocaust drama to this, a children’s film. That is truly versatility in its finest form.
Spielberg was a perfect choice for The BFG, and while some may call it a lesser work, I thought it was lovely and very well-made. It has humour (and if you like fart-jokes, then this film is made for you – childish but never inappropriate and constantly hilarious). It is a wonderful film, but I didn’t expect anything less from a Spielberg adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel. It is absolutely brilliant, and while it may not be Spielberg’s defining film, it is certainly one of his sweetest and most endearing, and it makes me truly appreciate him as a filmmaker. Its a quirky and sweet little film that will entertain everyone, and is simply something truly magical and special.