Trying to capture the spirit of Roald Dahl on screen is as difficult of trying to capture the spirit of Lewis Carroll. (Tim Burton knows, he’s failed at both.) There is just something about great children’s authors that only really works on the page. With Carroll it’s the effortless surrealism, J.M Barry has his determined innocence and with Roald Dahl it’s the cheeky irreverence. You’d have to exactly share his sensibilities to make it work and no one exactly shares his sensibilities. Even then there are things that happen in the books that would just be a little too grizzly in live action cinema. The man knew exactly how far he could push things, safe in the knowledge that children’s imaginations will only go to the limits of their own imaginations. It is no coincidence that the best adaptations of the writer’s work are those that tell straighter stories with monsters only slightly exaggerated from real life; characters like Danny the Champion of the World’s Victor Hazell and Matilda’s Trunchbull. 


This isn’t to say there aren’t good films made from Roald Dahl’s writing, quite the contrary, I think they are all strong in their own way. Although this is usually equally down to the personality of the film maker; people like Wes Anderson, Henry Selick and yes Tim Burton, as it is to Dahl’s individual story telling.


To appreciate a Roald Dahl adaptation then, is to go in to is accepting that it will most reflect someone else’s perceptions of the story; not his and not yours.


This new version the 1982 book The BFG combines Dahl with two other visionary forces; Stephen Spielberg and the Walt Disney company (also working together for the first time). Each of the three come through in the work in almost equal measure. The London setting is pure romanticised Disney, all cobbled streets and Victorian architecture, as are the caricatured villains. The surrogate parenting, lights dancing in the twilight, stubbornly determined young hero and John William’s score are classic Spielberg and the beastly grown ups (excessively grown up in this case), chewed up language, slimy foodstuffs, bravely stoical young hero and farting are all Dahl. The combination works and Disney’s/Stephen Spielberg’s/Roald Dahl’s The BFG has a genuine and individual charm rarely found in contemporary family cinema.


For those that love the book there are things missing. Dahl’s deliciously simple but idiosyncratic dream scenario’s are gone. I was hoping for but didn’t get vignettes showing the eight year boy with the bushy beard that makes all his friends jealous, the pet bee that sounds like rock and roll music when it flies or the little girl who can turn the lights on and off with her mind (now there’s an idea for a book all by itself). The giant’s murderous rampages are also toned down and their eventual fate seems kinder too.


The additions are effective though. We get a back story revealing that ten year old Sophie is not the first child to visit giant land which gives the story a nice edge and Spielberg’s version of the land of dreams is stunning.


On occasion sections of the source material are perfectly put through the director’s mainstream filter. The part of the story I was worried about seeing effectively translated to film was the whizzpoppers but this this is actually pitched perfectly. The scene where a particular group of dignitaries suffer a case of unchained flatulence is impactful but not overplayed and is easily the funniest thing I have seen in a movie theatre all year.


There is one other creative partner that needs to be acknowledged here as well. The screenplay is by Melissa Mathison who also wrote E.T. Sadly Mathison will not get to see the final work having passed away of Neuroendocrine cancer last November but it is a fitting end to a decades long career penning children’s films. 


The BFG may not appeal to all children and their parents but it is a gently paced, sophisticated, rich and endearing movie that offers a refreshing change to Kung Fu Pandas and Ice Ages. Spielberg may not be as bankable as he once was (this film’s performance in the States unfortunately shows this) but he is still on form and his handling of Roald Dahl, while not perfect, is big and friendly.

The Ripley Factor:
Disney and Dahl have a good track record with young female heroes even if Spielberg doesn’t and Sophie as portrayed by Ruby Barnhill is a great little role model. Mark Rylance’s CGIed portrayal of the titular behemoth may be more mannered and showy but the film is hers more than it is his.

Is this one for the kids?
The violence described in the book is understandably toned down and, while it is clear children have been eaten before, the film is actually a little lacking in its sense of peril. The giants are funnier than they are scary although there is a little of both. 

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