‘The BFG’ is a refreshing return to simple storytelling

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The BFG (2016)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Tom Hanks better watch his back; Steven Spielberg might have found a new favorite leading man. Mark Rylance already had 2 Tony Awards under his belt, but it wasn’t until last year’s supporting role in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” that he earned his first Oscar. Now, in both his and Spielberg’s first film since, they’ve teamed up again to bring Roald Dahl’s beloved 1982 children’s book “The BFG” to towering life…with wonderful results.

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In the early 1980s, a friendly giant (Mark Rylance) roamed the English countryside to quietly blow wonderful dreams into the heads of British children. Even towering two dozen feet above the ground, he became a master at hiding from wandering late-night eyes. But one night, he was spotted by a little orphan girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill). Afraid she would tattle and lead humans in an attack against his kind, he kidnapped her to giant country. Sophie was afraid, but soon she discovered that the giant was the smallest and kindest of all the giants. After encountering his child-eating giant neighbors (like those voiced by Bill Hader and Jemaine Clement), Sophie helped the Big Friendly Giant devise a plan to bring them down.

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I hate to admit it, but I’ve actually never read “The BFG.” It’s a pity, because if it’s anything like this film adaptation (and I suspect very much that it is) it’s both a time capsule of its era and a timeless piece of children’s lit. I imagine that Spielberg’s take on the tale (from the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who passed away last November) is a faithful adaptation, because some of the jokes are now old and unoriginal. When “The BFG” was written in 1982, having a giant eat human food with a shovel for a spoon and a sword for a knife probably hadn’t been done before in a children’s book. But by now, that sort of childish gag is old news. Regardless, I admire Mathison and Spielberg’s keen attention to detail and their respect for the original source material. And much of the unique language of the book—recall Dahl’s keenness for odd languages in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”—is pulled directly into the screenplay. It provides so much of Rylance’s best dialogue. “The BFG” is stylish, funny, and enjoyable. The plot is simple, an A-to-B arc that never hides its cards. But where some see a flaw, I see a breath of fresh air. It’s not often anymore that a movie isn’t out to make you cry or gasp. “The BFG” is quiet escapism. It’s a calm ride.

THE BFG

Pulling off what amounts to a Hail Mary pass in the motion capture world, Mark Rylance is transformed almost seamlessly into the 24-feet, disproportionately-featured titular giant in a way that makes him both horrifying and endearing. If you’ve ever seen the cover of Roald Dahl’s book, illustrated by frequent Dahl collaborator Quentin Blake, you’ve basically already seen Rylance’s version. Spielberg calls it the greatest feat of motion capture in film history. He’s not far off. And Mark Ryalnce doesn’t waste the extraordinary effort put into creating his character. He delivers one of the year’s most unforgettable performances. If “The BFG” wasn’t a children’s movie, Rylance might be garnering Oscar’s attention this year, too. At 2016’s mid-point, I might even call it the best performance of the year to date. But the BFG isn’t even the main character in the film named after him. That honor belongs to Sophie, the intrepid orphan who helps the BFG stand up for himself. And in her film debut, 11-year-old Ruby Barnhill knocks that role out of the park. Barnhill’s awareness of how to deliver a line to the fullest effect puts her in a league of her own, compared to her similarly aged Hollywood peers. Her confidence is refreshing. She has a bright future ahead of her.

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Remember the prop pieces used to dwarf the kids in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”? Well, welcome to 2016. “The BFG” has an ‘80s movie feel to it, but it also spares no expenses when it comes to effects. “The BFG” looks downright gorgeous, especially in 3D. And with John Williams providing 2016’s best score to date, it sounds pretty, too. Tack on a pair of tip-top acting performances (plus cheery supporting roles from Rafe Spall, Rebecca Hall, and Penelope Wilton) and you’ve got another marvelous outing for Steven Spielberg. This is classic storytelling. “The BFG” is big fun.

8/10

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