Film / Reviews

'The BFG': With an emphasis on the friendly

by Kaori Shoji

The Japanese have never really warmed to the stories of Roald Dahl, with the exception of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Even then, they’re probably not thinking of Dahl, it’s more about Johnny Depp and the Wonka Chocolate bars sold at most high-end supermarkets around Valentine’s and Christmas.

Now, after the crop of summer blockbusters have come and gone, Walt Disney Japan has chosen the September Silver Week holidays to release “The BFG,” one of Dahl’s internationally lesser-known stories.

In the hands of another director — Alejandro Inarritu, for example — “The BFG” potentially could have wound up as a terrifying, PG-13 horror: it is, after all, about a kidnapped little girl surrounded by carnivorous giants. But never fear — it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Melissa Mathison of “E.T.” fame.” BFG” has all the ingredients needed for it to recreate that magical Hollywood bond between a child and a fantastical creature — or at least that’s what the media has been led to believe.

The BFG (BFG: Biggu Furendori Jaianto)
Rating
Run Time 117 mins
Language English

Meanness is out. The scare factor is also out (well, most of it anyway). A cozy BFG-sized security blanket of comfort permeates the proceedings, and the production design is absolutely gorgeous eye-candy.

But this ambience is the exact opposite of Dahl’s original “The BFG” and, in fact, almost all of Dahl’s tales for kids. Awful things assail children in his stories: hunger, deprivation, brutality, bullying and more. Children are coerced by adults, chased down by witches and hunted by giants who want nothing more than to tear them limb from limb. The settings are often bleak, too: dark, menacing forests and badly lit houses with crumbling walls. In the world according to Dahl, the only way a child can prevail is to take charge of his or her own life, no matter how young or lacking in resources they are, and do whatever it takes to forge on.

Spielberg’s 10-year old protagonist Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), however, may be perky and wise but she is also regrettably passive. She appears in the narrative as a sweet little girl living in an orphanage, a victim of circumstances. That paradigm doesn’t change when one night, the titular BFG (Big Friendly Giant), played by Mark Rylance, wanders over, plucks her like a dandelion from her dormitory and takes her to his home in the Land of the Giants. Now she’s a sweet, wise girl living with a giant.

Admittedly, BFG taking Sophie is part of the original tale, but it is never-the-less a bit of a disturbing plot line. With all the talk in the American media (and to a lesser degree in Japan) about empowering children to protect them from crimes like kidnapping, you’d think Spielberg would have laid out the groundwork a bit more. Take Universal’s “Despicable Me,” a different breed of entertainment but with a story more in tune with the times: Villain Gru made a fake website and posed as an adoptive father in order to bring three girls from the orphanage back to his abode. BFG displays no such creativity. He just nabs Sophie and appoints himself as her nurturer and protector from the claws of other, much bigger giants in his land — giants who call humans “beans” and are particularly fond of chewing on little children.

Pursued by the likes of ominously named Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler, Sophie gladly falls into the role of a well-loved and protected girl, until she finally shows some initiative and convinces BFG to visit the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) in order to formulate a plan to put a stop to the “bean gobbling.”

Unfortunately, political correctness and Dahl just don’t gel, but when it comes to Sophie, Spielberg doesn’t even experiment with the chemistry that the combination could bring. He could have tried to improve on her role by adding his own interpretations. As a result, “The BFG” turns out to be an affably engaging vehicle but unlike “E.T.,” it leaves precious little in the memory bank.