By Greg Ehrbar…
Domestically, Steven Spielberg’s The BFG was a box office letdown. Overseas, especially in the U.K. and Australia, it fared quite well. Based on one of Roald Dahl’s warmest and least cynical books, it was a natural for the big screen (and in fact, was produced in cel-animated form in 1989).
It turns out that The BFG is one of the finest family films you may have never seen, a condition easily—and delightfully—remedied by enjoying the new Blu-ray, which shows off the stunning visuals to great effect.
Dahl had an ability to spin a tale with such definition and certainty, it could make you believe it had existed for centuries. The BFG is truly a “once upon a time” story in the mold of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz in that its heroine who, as played by Ruby Barnhill, blends innocent wonder with clear-headed determination.
Basically, it’s the story of a young orphan who discovers that a giant wanders the streets of London each night, blowing dreams into the heads of sleeping folks. To protect his anonymity, he takes her to Giant Land, where he has a wondrous collection of dreams in carefully labeled bottles. He’s big and friendly, as opposed to the bigger and unfriendly other giants who eat children; that’s as Dahlistically dark as it gets.
Spielberg and his team, blessed with a fine adaptation by the late Melissa Matheson, The BFG takes the quiet awe of E.T. out of the suburbs and into old-world fantasy, especially in the impressive dream-catching sequence.
Matheson is remembered by Spielberg and company in one of the bonus features on the Blu-ray. There’s also a general “making of” featurette; an amusing visit with Bill Hader and Jemaine Clement, who costarred (in motion-capture form); and a tutorial about “gobblefunk” and Dahl’s other Lewis Carrollesque word creations.
In addition, there is an animated storybook feature based on the hand-drawn book Sophie finds in a mysterious room in the giant’s cave, drawn by a previous guest of the giant–a young boy of whom little is said. Perhaps the boy’s story was planned for sequels and prequels, as I do not recall any reference to him in the book.
It would have been wonderful to have an audio commentary as well, as there must be a lot to say about such a production, which was years in preparation. Surprisingly, there is also no feature about the historic connection between Dahl and Walt Disney. (I wrote about it here https://d23.com/the-disneydahl-connection/ on Disney’s D23 website, which requires a free membership for access.
The film’s standout sequences take place in the Queen’s palace, where the lady herself (played by Downtown Abbey’s “Miss Crawley”, Penelope Wilton) and her assistant (played by Rebecca Hall). From breakfast to the “whizzpopper,” it’s the same kind of inventive, humorous insolence that makes Dahl so popular—and imitated.
Both 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (based on Dahl’s 1964 masterwork Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (which Dahl co-adapted from his friend Ian Fleming’s 1964 book) have earned beloved status since their unsuccessful domestic releases. Pour a cup of hot cocoa, watch The BFG and decide for yourself whether it will one day stand alongside them.