Technically a remake, the beloved children’s story The BFG gets an update by none-other than Steven Spielberg himself. Lee and Shane explore whether it holds up.
From the opening shot of The BFG (never mind the gorgeous simplicity of the title card), you know you are in safe hands. Within three slow, softly-panning shots of fantasy London, we know more about the world that Sophie lives in had any narration could ever have expressed. We see the cobbled streets, the quiet desolation, the simple luxury, the cosy comforts, the boozy neighbours, the seedy backstreet, the shadowy corners, the unseen periphery. The setting alone speaks novels about this world, somewhere bigger than children can know. We see little more of it throughout the movie, and never in the daylight; it exists entirely as a representation of a character’s state of mind rather, not as an actual place.
For nearly two-hours, Steven Spielberg does his best to present a world that only exists to serve the characters that inhabit it. It never overstays its welcome, it never intrudes on a meaningful moment, but it underlies every action and echoes every intention of Sophie and her newfound giant friend. It complements the innocence and naivety belying the story, and the bare simplicity that calls upon that long-dormant spirit of childhood adventure.
It’s hard to move past it, it leaves such an impression. Almost always set in the dark but never gloomy, always colourful, always lit from someplace. The light scenes almost represent reverse-dream sequences; even coming in the two distinct varieties explored in the narrative, both nightmare and reverie. Morning means Giant Country, means danger, means looming threat. Morning also means a visit to the Queen of England, a fantasy on fantasy scenario that manages to somehow feel less real than the Big Friendly Giant we spend the entire film getting to know. Neither scenes feel real, they’re too out-of-place, too dangerous for both Sophie and the BFG.
Gorgeous, creative; it feels plucked from the cynical mind of Dahl himself. As do the characters: Sophie, a Dahlist protagonist like every other; an inventive, astute and tactical child unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie; the BFG, a whimsical, magical fool trying to do right when all the world they live in and the moves they make are often so very wrong.
Analysis of The BFG need only be basic, or it pops the entire fun balloon. There are bad adults and good adults, and with the help of kids, good adults can finally do the right thing. That’s the most Dahl storyline in all of Dahldom, and it’s exemplified here.
A little deeper, and we explore the BFG’s character and arc. Perhaps he represents the struggling parent or grandparent, overprotective and jaded; cynical and paranoid. But then we follow his arc to its progression, and what changes? What do we learn? How does anything past his initial decision to snatch Sophie ever justify his reasons for doing so? He overcomes his own issues, sure. He gets Sophie a home; one so overly lavish and fantastical it can only feel cheap and heartless.
Deeper still into the fantasy and the loose threads show on all sides, ripe for plucking. He steals her and it only threatens her life. She goes from kidnapped, to hostage, to, sweet lord, Stockholm syndrome? Nothing feels earned, he shows her a few of his magic dreams including one to intentionally brainwash her, suddenly she doesn’t want to leave him? There’s a connection? Then she’s leaping from ledges and hiding in plain sight and you can’t help but blame The BFG the entire time, and he attempts to shrug it off, he makes poor decisions by admission, but is that ok?
Is The BFG an exploration of the naivety of children to embrace strangers? It’s very Dahl, he loved his anti-messages, but usually the good-natured heart shines beneath the cynical humour and dark fantasy. This time, we have to consider after he already let a child get eaten and hides this fact purposefully from Sophie, whether The BFG is intentionally a malicious, deceitful character or just another skewed representation of adults. Perhaps he is the man-child? Perhaps he is the desperate parent who has lost their child?
The train of thought goes deeper and deeper and never truly gets a clear answer that dispels the notion that the BFG, magical and fun and goofy as he is, feels jarring and outdated. And perhaps that’s not an issue. Has any child grown up impaired by exposure to the Big Friendly Giant? I was one of those children and I don’t think so. Even if there is a dark underbelly here, does it actually affect anyone? Probably not. Hell, if anything, it only cements it as a true fairy tale; dark stories with muddy morals and questionable value to children.
My issues lie with the third act’s plodding end, which despite its air of trying too hard is still pretty fun, and Sophie’s mid-film abandonment, which I label as reckless and unforgivable filmmaking. This I see as the only concrete image and message that can truly damage children: if someone leaves you, go to extremes to get them to come back. No matter the circumstance, this is a black message to instil in children. Lost a parent? Jump out a window. Its inclusion shatters any pretence that this movie has children at heart, and it’s so short and so frivolous it feels tacked on even for the film, like a writer was either trying to write through a serious story gap or just stopped trying.
The BFG is a film of wonder, crafted by veterans of storytelling. It is also hopelessly flawed in a fundamental way that means to recommend it to children, its target audience, would feel like a grave error. Watch as an adult, enjoy the experience of feeling young again, rekindle your love affair with naivety and don’t read too much into the subtext. Experience a world crafted with love and attention, a film directed with imagination and joy and genuine passion. But if your kid must watch this, keep a vested interest and take scenes like the aforementioned seriously. I know it’s a bit of a downer, but so is being dropped by supposedly safe hands.
Roald Dahl is my favorite author. I say that in part because his lack of respect for creative ‘rules’ hit a nerve in me so deeply as a child that I still feel it as a driving force of inspiration to this day. Also, I hit my peak reading level at 9 years old.
In my opinion, The BFG is a story that really helps set the distinction between ‘classic’ pieces and ‘timeless’ pieces. A timeless piece is something that is very nearly as relatable for modern day audiences as it would have been for the generation that first embraced it; a classic is something that is just as brilliant as its first release, with some major help from Captain Context.
The BFG falls into the latter; it’s a classic. Released in 1982, the world was seen as a safer place for children. For the average 10-year-old child in 1982, your parents were born during or shortly after the most destructive war the world has ever known and your grandparents were fighting in it. On a list of fears, worrying about where you and your friends were out playing ranked somewhere between contracting HIV from shaking hands with a homosexual and the impeding nuclear apocalypse.
Thanks to a Generation X cocktail of child disappearances, shootings and the Catholic Church; parents no longer have the same trust in thy neighbor as once was. It’s not for me to decide whether this is waking up from the naivety of the past, the tragedy of modern day overbearing parents or a mixture of the two. What I can say is that BFG is not up to speed with today’s generation.
The premise of an orphan being abducted by an ancient giant, brought to a far away land that she has no hope of escaping until she finally gives in to the sweet security of Stockholm Syndrome is an unsettling one. At one point the BFG literally implants nightmares into the child so that the fear of death will keep her in his lair on one of the rare occasions she manages to escape his omnipresence.
Yes, I may be being a bit cynical, as much as I can say parents were less overbearing in the early 80s, I doubt many of them thought a child being abducted by an old man was just part of the magic of growing up. The problem is that Roald Dahl had a twisted and dark sense of humour. One that I still find brilliant to this day, Roald Dahl never intended for his work to be passed around at PTA meetings with harmonious approval; the difference is Spielberg did.
My love for Spielberg is as deeply nostalgic and enduring as it is for Dahl, but I love them both for two totally different reasons. Steven Spielberg harnesses every rule ever used successfully in cinema to be something of a Direction-virtuoso., something of a far cry from the structure-less well of creativity found in Roald Dahl. When the two come together things are a little off. On the positive side, Stephen Spielberg has the patience required to add depth to the limitless ideas Roald Dahl throws out without giving a second thought to. On the negative side, that depth makes the story all too real, questions that used to be pointless in chaotic Dahl book become all too relevant. Why did you steal a child? Why won’t you let her go home? Why have I spent the last 15 minutes watching people in Buckingham Palace fart?
There is a point where the Sophie, the child who puts the ‘kid’ in ‘kidnapping’, stumbles upon an old room in the BFG’s home filled with drawings from the ‘previous’ child the BFG abducted/befriended wearing the same outfit as Sophie, reenacting scenes eerily similar to those BFG and Sophie have enjoyed together thus far. In any other movie this would be the terrifying moment where we realize that our captor isn’t the fun loving old buffoon he seems to be but in fact might be a demented sociopath i.e. The Lovely Bones. But in The BFG we’re told to just laugh it off and enjoy the Queen’s royally smelly farts.
The BFG made me uncomfortable, as I’m sure you can tell, but I know for a fact there are a majority of people who won’t notice these flaws and will enjoy it enormously, or at least moderately. It is a beautiful piece and masterfully directed, but if you don’t mind I’ll stick to the twisted world of Roald Dahl’s books, where if a creepy old man wanted to rape you, he’d just go ahead and do it.