In third grade, my teacher had spent most of the year reading us the works of Roald Dahl, and I was entranced. His writing brought unique, imaginative worlds to life, but more than that, he showed more respect for his young audience than anyone else. He didn't believe everything for kids had to be cute and clean, so he thought nothing of detailing a witch's dry, scabby scalp, or the grotesque things that could happen to greedy children on a chocolate factory tour. And while his books often exuded a sense of danger, kids were never scared because the author always balanced horror with a darkly comical quirk. I think a lot of people respected him for not treating children like fragile China, but resilient human beings who are empowered to overcome insurmountable odds. But watching Hollywood attempt to emulate Dahl's style on the big screen has been… interesting. Sure, many of us consider the films adapted from his books to be classics, but the author hated them. So, after his passing in 1990, Felicity Dahl wasn't immediately sure if she'd allow more films to be made. After all, studios showing up with fake smiles, empty promises and suitcases full of money wouldn't guarantee a quality product. But she eventually decided to let book-to-film translations continue, but with a caveat: She'd first need a good script and passionate director on-board. A live-action version of The BFG was then proposed in 1991, but woefully found itself in development hell… until the film was steered into the hands of Disney and Steven Spielberg.
And fortunately, the match-up proves to be just as magical as it sounds.
For those unfamiliar with this classic tale, The BFG follows Sophie, a ten year old girl which resides in a London orphanage. Plagued with insomnia, she spends most of her nights curled up in bed with a book and flashlight to pass the time until she's ready to conk out. But a bit of ruckus draws her to the window one night, and much to her surprise, she spots a giant clumsily messing about with garbage cans. Without hesitation, the giant captures Sophie and brings her all the way to Giant Country. There, he explains that the existence of giants mustn't be revealed to the world of ‘human beans', and to ensure that doesn't happen, she'll have no choice but to stay with him forever. At first, Sophie is eager to escape, but since Giant Country is full of menacing characters named ghastly things like Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler - who have no problem gobbling up children, by the way - she comes to the realization that escape is futile. Worse yet, the giant that's protecting her might not be able to keep her safe, as he's the runt of the land and constantly bullied by the others. But because they're both alone in their respective worlds, they become good friends and ultimately decide to stop hiding from their problems and face them head on.
One of the first things that struck me as I watched the opening moments of this film, was just how much I appreciate Spielberg's touch in the modern era of filmmaking. So much of what's been released in 2016 has been about getting in the viewer's face, and while this may come across well on storyboards or trailers, all it makes me focus on is a director's blatant lack of constraint. Excitement shouldn't be measured by a smorgasbord of quick cuts that aren't even given a measly 24 frames to just breathe. Spielberg, on the other hand, conveys tones by capturing aesthetically pleasing shots and allowing them to linger by a combination of slow tracking movements, wide lens shots, silhouettes against the bright and beautiful, etc. His mastery of framing and composition alone can tell a story, and I can't remember the last time Spielberg used this to greater effect than he does here, in The BFG. For example, a fair chunk of the films' first 30-to-35 minutes is spent watching Sophie talk with, and get to know the Big Friendly Giant. It's just a nice conversation between two main characters inside a home, and as simplistic a concept this is, listening to the dialogue is hypnotizing, and Spielberg's able to keep things visually arresting. I literally told myself I'd be fine watching these characters just sit and chat for the entirety of the film's run time, if it came to it.
Of course, even the best camerawork wouldn't be able to cover up lousy performances, but the primary cast - Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, and Mark Rylance as BFG - put forth some of the best performances I've seen (and heard) this year, at least in the family films category. This is Ruby's first major motion picture, and although she was only 10 at the time of filming, she projects the range of someone who's been acting for years. Depending on which way the story swings or sways, she can be funny, charming, dramatic and fiery, especially impressive considering her co-star was completely CGI. And speaking of, Mark Rylance was better than I imagined anyone could be as the BFG, and that's keeping in mind Robin Williams had once been pegged for the part. I was always skeptical of this character most, because in the book, BFG had a unique way of talking that I, frankly, couldn't imagine sounding natural from any actor I'm familiar with:
From Roald Dahl's The BFG: "Words," he said, "is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squaddled around."
Just seeing how the giant talks seems silly, and yet Rylance was able to transform himself in a way that made the highly detailed, yet still obviously CGI giant, seem as real to me as the hands I'm using to write this review. I, in fact, would love to see him nominated for his work on The BFG, because not only does he make this clunky speech sound natural, he brings all the emotion and heart that's supposed to go with it. Having the Sophie character love the giant is one thing, but the true achievement for everyone involved - from Spielberg, to Rylance, and to everyone involved in motion-capture and animation - was ensuring that the audience would love him, too, unbecoming habits and all. From my perspective, there's no question they've done that.
While I know a great deal of work went into the making of this film, each individual aspect of its production comes together so perfectly that it wholly comes off feeling effortless. Felicity Dahl wanted to best preserve her late husband's legacy by ensuring adaptations of his work would be done by the right people, for the right reasons. We can never really know how the late author would have felt about Spielberg's take on The BFG, but as far as I'm concerned, this is by far the most satisfying translation of Roald Dahl's work to date. It's been a solid year for family films - even more so for Disney, who have seen great success with Finding Dory and a live-action Jungle Book - but I don't think anything had burst at the seams with as much heart, magic and charm like The BFG did. As 2016 comes to a close, I dare say it's one of my favorites of the year.
The BFG comes to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded transfer (2.39:1) that brings every magical inch of the world Steven Spielberg created - thanks to the imagination of Roald Dahl - to life.
Disney is one of the top contenders for producing the best video presentations on the market, and this film is no exception. Shot digitally, The BFG's live-action is able to blend with the film's extensive use of CGI wonderfully. Colors are rich and vibrant, allowing the lush grass of Giant Country to be inviting, and sparkly dreams kept in jars to light the screen up like a Christmas tree. Skin tones are as accurate as the color grading allows - there's lots of different coloring used when Sophie is out with the giant at night, inside his work area, etc. - and contrast and black levels are immaculate. There's also no artificial sharpening to speak of. All culminate to produce a picture that's as sharp and detailed as the format could possible provide, with a tremendous sense of depth and dimensionality to boot. I'm not a person who's made the jump to 4K, but with transfers like this, I have to wonder if I even need to.
The BFG has been given a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that whisks the audience away to fantasy land just as well as the picture does. This film focuses on the perspective of a little girl, so the footsteps of giants awaken the LFE appropriately… not too loud, but with enough heft to let the listener understand how small they are when paired up against a giant. Even voices of the nastiest giants carry a little ‘oomph' with them. When the excitement picks up, that's when the room really shakes, but not to the point where it feels unnatural to the mix overall. Things are perfectly balanced, as this mix provides fantastic dynamic range, crystal clear dialogue, and environmental effects which have been sprinkled in with pinpoint precision. The music also seems to become a primary player whenever it kicks in, but manages to stay just where it needs to as to not overpower anything else that deserves prominence. Simply put, this is a stellar track all around.
-Bringing the BFG to Life - Just over 27 minutes in length, Ruby Barnhill hosts us through video diaries which explain how the film was made. Pretty much each aspect of the film's production is included, allowing this supplement to tell us enough about the magic of filming The BFG, but without really getting into the nitty-gritty (which is a little disappointing). There's plenty of people who will be sad that more information won't be following in the form of a feature commentary, but this should at least whet their whistle. Still, I have a feeling there's plenty of other people who never access such features, nor would want to sit through the entire film while someone else is talking, so for them, this is an excellent companion piece.
-The Big Friendly Giant and Me - An animated retelling of the story that chimes in at just under 2 minutes.
-Gobblefunk - The Wonderful Words of the BFG - A few minutes in length, this featurette covers the giant's unique way of talking.
-Giant 101 - How the nine giants were cast and inevitably brought to the big screen (roughly five minutes in length).
-Melissa Mathison - A Tribute - A wonderful screenwriter which passed in 2015 gets a moving tribute.
I honestly can't believe this is all the disc has to offer. Disney are usually pretty solid on delivering supplemental content, but The BFG is much thinner in this regard than any release I've seen from them in some time.
I was skeptical, believing this would be a tricky film to pull off, but the imagination of Dahl and the direction of Spielberg have culminated into something truly wonderful. While there's been plenty of adaptations of the author's work before, this is probably the most faithful translation we've seen to date - aside from some minor tweaks to make the giant a tad more relatable - and for my money, it's the best film of the bunch. The story itself may not have much depth, but everything from the acting (both on-screen and off), to the writing, CGI, and especially the direction - Spielberg was masterful at keeping that spark of danger alive while retaining a generous mix of laughter and warmth - make The BFG one of those whimsically magical films that only come around once in awhile, but will stay with you long after you've seen it. Not only will it tickle your fancy, but it's the perfect film to sit down and enjoy with the entire family. Unfortunately, Disney haven't seen fit to provide their usual breadth of supplements, but the audio and video presentations are practically second to none. Highly Recommended.