Nothing says "a lovely film for kids" like a giant, crotchety old man in a cloak who peeks through windows and steals young orphans in the dead of the night. I don't think I'm alone in saying that The BFG was my most feared of all the Roald Dahl stories when I was growing up. Horrible oozing snozzcumbers? Aggressive spiky bad dreams that look like the personified germs in an ad for household cleaning products? It's enough to make Miss Trunchbull cry herself to sleep in the chokey.
Even after the news that Steven Spielberg was making it into a live action film, I had no doubt in my mind that it would come out a horror to rival only The Conjuring 2. At the media screening I attended, Suzy Cato's soothing voice welcoming us did nothing to allay my fears of meeting the blood-curdling Bonecruncher face-to-face. I would also like to add that I am 24 years old.
Turns out I needn't have fretted. Spielberg has handled the iconic children's story with gentle hands, creating a whimsical waft of fantasy scenes that flit about, not unlike the BFG's own collection of dream jars. Starring a post-motion capture Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall, Bridge of Spies) as the 24-foot giant and introducing Ruby Barnhill as the optimistic orphan Sophie, it's a family-friendly adventure story drenched in breath-taking beauty and technical wonder.
The BFG is visually stunning and laugh-out-loud funny at times, but lacks the beloved bite of other Dahl film adaptations. The reason his stories are so universally beloved by children everywhere is that they are a little bit naughty, sometimes a bit lewd, and incredibly, bone-crunchingly dark. That's why the 1990 adaptation of The Witches still airs almost every Halloween on TV, and why even the bravest of souls still can't bring themselves to watch the unrehearsed tunnel scene in the 1976 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The villain of The BFG is the Fleshlumpeater, voiced by the inimitable Jemaine Clement. Towering over the runty BFG, he's on a mission to gobble up any "human beans" that may be lurking around his lair. That is, until he gets a boo-boo and weeps gently.
With the only enemy in the film being basically an overgrown baby, it feels at times that the narrative might be too thin to sustain the two-hour run time. If your kids enjoy observing the impressive development of motion capture technology, they'll be overjoyed. If they want a gnarly adventure full of twisted characters and grimy toilet jokes, they'll have to stick it out to the third act.
It is only when the BFG makes it all the way back to prim and proper England that you can really feel the lid lift off Dahl's dream jar.
There are gluttonous piles of food that would make Bruce Bogtrotter proud, gaseous emissions that would make Willy Wonka beam and animal antics lifted straight from The Twits.
Watching this unruly giant spit a giant mug of coffee all over the great halls of Buckingham Palace, I couldn't help but think that is the Roald Dahl we know and love.
Spielberg's BFG is jam-packed with heart, and wistful moments, and it's hard not to well up when the giant talks about dreams as "the secret whisperings of the world" in his iconic colloquial jumble. But it just felt a touch underwhelming, like an under-seasoned snozzcumber, or a flat glass of frobscottle. I never thought I'd say this, but the Big Friendly Giant might be just a little too friendly this time around.