The Scoop: 1989 NR, directed by Brian Cosgrove and starring David Jason, Amanda Root, Angela Thorne, Ballard Berkeley, Michael Knowles, and Don Henderson.
Tagline: Couldn’t find one.
Summary Capsule: Small girl becomes the guest of a great big lovable kook of a giant – which is all fun and games until she finds out what his neighbors are like…
Deneb’s Review: There’s a book in my bookshelf that I’ve owned for a very long time. It’s a paperback, a bit on the small side, worn and tattered from use. The cover is missing, and the last two pages have fallen out and been replaced by photocopies from a library edition, carefully attached to the spine through the use of Scotch tape.
I imagine a lot of you probably own at least one book like that. You’ve had it around for just about forever, and while it’ll probably fall apart completely one of these days, you’ll enjoy it while it’s still in one piece – and when it does disintegrate, you’ll pop out and buy another smart-like, because not owning a copy of it would at this point be unthinkable.
Naturally, the book in question is different for everyone. Perhaps it’s a literary classic, or just some piece of fluff that has little actual merit, but is close to your heart nonetheless. In my case it’s The BFG, by Roald Dahl.
It’s difficult to overemphasize just how profound an effect The BFG had on me as a wee nipper. It almost single-handedly instilled in me the love of wordplay that continues to characterize my writing today. It’s also a major contribution to my firm belief that stories work best when they have a mixture of tones – its combination of humor and grotesquery have a combined impact that results in a literary sucker-punch. Even now, it’s still one of my favorite books, and one I reread on a semi-regular basis. Basically, The BFG rocks. Always has, always will.
Now, recently I’ve come across rumors that a live-action adaptation of the book is in the works. Needless to say, this is serious you-better-not-screw-this-up-you-bastards territory for me, and I will be first in line to see it when and if it comes out. Assuming for the moment that the rumors are true, you may expect a review of it the moment it hits DVD, and if it’s mishandled by Hollywood, by golly but there will be vitriol from yours truly. The words may scorch the screen.
However, you will note that I said “live-action adaptation” as opposed to simply “adaptation”. There is a reason for this – a BFG movie already exists. It’s animated, and not too well-known outside of the UK, where it originated. Hell, I only found out about it a few years ago, and have been meaning to see it ever since – but somehow, life kept getting in the way.
When I heard the movie rumors, however, that provided the necessary impetus. Being the completist that I am, I couldn’t possibly see the shiny new bells-and-whistles version without being able to compare it to the original. (Well, not the original original, which is of course the book. But you know what I mean.)
So I finally got off my butt and watched it. How was it? Read and learn.
The movie begins in a small English village. It is the dead of night, and Sophie (Amanda Root), a young resident of the local orphanage, can’t sleep.
So naturally, she goes to take a look out the window. Looks peaceful and quiet enouHOLY CRAP WHAT’S THAT?!
‘That’ is a huge, cloaked figure slowly making its way along the street. It is, in point of fact, a giant – an actual giant, twenty feet tall if he’s an inch. If Sophie had ducked right back into bed that second, he might not have noticed her, but she goggled for just a moment too long (and really, who could blame her?), and as a result, she is noticed – and the next thing she notices is his huge hand reaching through the window to snatch her up.
Before she’s so much as had time to collect her breath, she’s been spirited off to Giant Country, a blasted desert landscape where all giants come from. Her giant takes her to the huge cavern that serves him for a lair, and dumps her down on the tabletop. Then he starts talking about food. Poor Sophie! Her goose is cooked, yes-no?
Well, as it turns out, no. This particular giant (David Jason) is not after a child-sized snack. In point of fact, he’s quite a nice fellow. He calls himself the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG, and lives up to the name. He never eats “human beans”, and he certainly isn’t going to start with Sophie.
So why is she there? Simple – she saw him. The BFG is not generally in the habit of kidnapping small girls in the middle of the night, but he values his freedom, and fears that if humans ever found out about him, he’d be popped into the nearest zoo. So she’ll just have to stay with him forever. Sorry about that.
Now, from Sophie’s perspective, there’s both a good side and a bad one to this. On the good side, she is an orphan, after all, and life at the Clonkers Home for Girls is not something she’s going to miss. And if she had to be snatched away by someone, she could have done a lot worse than the BFG. The guy is not only a lovable fellow, he’s also got the coolest job in the world – which, along with certain other details, I’m not going to tell you about, as they’re best discovered in person.
The bad side, on the other hand… yeah. It’s pretty bad. The problem with life in Giant Country is that the BFG is more than somewhat of an anomaly among his kind. He may be “nice and jumbly”, but the others… aren’t. In fact, they’re not only nasty, they’re outright monsters. While the BFG spends his nights out on his business-which-shall-not-be-discussed-here, the others – horrible brutes with names like the Fleshlumpeater, Maidmasher, Childchewer and Butcher Boy – go hunting for nice, tasty human beans to munch on. And since these fearsome behemoths are each easily twice the BFG’s size, there is no way he could stop them from devouring Sophie whole if they ever found out about her.
All in all, no picnic. (Except maybe for the giants.) But Sophie’s got a plan – a plan to teach those people-munching bullies a lesson once and for all.
What is said plan? How does it involve the BFG? Ah, that you must learn for yourself.
So what did I think? Well, let’s start with the good stuff.
The simplest and yet most important part of said “good stuff” would be the following fact – they didn’t mess around with it. That sounds incredibly basic, I know, but really, a lot of sub-par adaptations can trace their sub-parness to the absence of that one thing. The temptation to shoehorn completely irrelevant bushwa into a story must be astoundingly strong, given how many films sink or swim based on precisely that. The makers of The BFG didn’t do quite a lot of things that could have messed up the movie. They didn’t, for example, turn Sophie into a wisecracking smart-alec (does that term still apply here? What would the female equivalent be – ‘smart-alexia?’) who dropped immediately-dated pop-culture references with every line. They didn’t have the BFG be voiced by some incredibly recognizable celebrity like, say, Sean Connery (not that he wouldn’t have done a good job, I’m sure, but still – distracting). They didn’t rename the Fleshlumpeater and company with less threatening monickers to assuage anxious parents. They didn’t, in short, do any of the boneheaded things that have been done to such movies over the years, and for that, I applaud them.
Indeed, they appear to have put quite a lot of effort into preserving the overall feel of the book, and most of the time it works. The opening sequence, for instance, is pretty close to perfect. Why? Two words – it’s scary.
The movie doesn’t start out feeling like a beloved children’s story. The movie starts out feeling like a cautionary tale about getting out of bed in the middle of the night – “go to sleep quickly, or the giant that walks the street will get you”. The general mood is subdued and ominous, and our first glimpse of the BFG makes him look more like a titanic grim reaper than the whimsical fellow we will ultimately discover him to be. Heck, I knew exactly what was going to happen, and I was still creeped out a bit.
All this is perfectly in line with the book, and is really a good key to The BFG’s basic appeal – to a certain extent, it’s a horror story. Being snatched away by a giant in the middle of the night? Giants going on the hunt for people to eat – people like you – while you’re fast asleep and defenseless? That’s scary stuff, and the movie doesn’t try to pretend that it isn’t. True, it doesn’t go quite as far as it might – this is a kids’ cartoon after all – but there’s a dark undercurrent to all the fun and games, and it’s not shied away from. It’s not as dark as the book, but I’m frequently amazed by just how dark Roald Dahl could get, so that’s hardly surprising.
As for said fun and games, they’re in there too, never fear. The BFG’s constant creative mangling of the English language is the main source of humor in the original, and while it’s not quite as front and center in the cartoon, it’s still quite prominent.
And on a more basic level, the film looks terrific. I mean, we’re not talking big-budget animation or anything here, but some of the backgrounds are really rather beautiful, and flesh out the world of the BFG quite nicely – his cave, for instance is much grander and more baroque than in the books. Visually, the thing’s quite pretty.
So, if all that’s the good stuff, then what’s the bad stuff? Well… not much. And therein lies the problem – sort of.
Allow me to explain. While I’m certainly grateful that the powers that be didn’t attempt to insert a bunch of boneheaded nonsense into the original story in order to “appeal to the youth market” or some such, there are all sorts of things that they could have done that they didn’t, which left me feeling somewhat disappointed. The BFG may be a kids’ book, but it is a rich, complex kids’ book, and there were all sorts of elements which could have been exploited, and weren’t. I’d have much preferred the movie to try to do so and fail (therefore falling under the category of “bad stuff”) than not to attempt it at all.
For example, let’s take the BFG himself. Sure, he’s just as nice a guy in the book as in the movie, but in the book, he’s far more than that. Underneath all the spoonerisms and goofiness, the book-BFG is really a rather rich character. He has a well-thought out philosophy of life, which not only acknowledges but treats as matter-of-fact all things of the fantastic; he is wise in the ways of the world, with a touch of cynicism regarding humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, and while he is always kind and thoughtful towards Sophie, he can also be brusque, impatient, and touchy. Also, while he frankly acknowledges his relative weakness when it comes to the Fleshlumpeater and his mob, he never displays the quaking terror regarding them that the movie version does – he has, after all, been dealing with them for quite a while. He accepts the fact that he is helpless to stop their murdering ways with a mournful dignity, up to the point when Sophie has her bright idea – at which point, he is all too eager to spring into action. Basically, the book-BFG is a far more rounded character than the movie version is, and while that’s certainly understandable – after all, you can pack much more character development into a book than a movie – surely a little more of the original could have been brought to the table? I mean, at times the guy comes off more or less like a clown, which is not true to the book at all.
And while we’re on the (recent) subject of the other giants, let’s talk about them, shall we? They have far less of a presence in the movie. In the book, they are much more of a focus – they are constantly being talked about, and while the BFG’s direct interactions with them are relatively few and far between, they’re more drawn out and leave more of an impression. Furthermore, the giants themselves leave more of an impression – they’re just as comically language-prone as the BFG, and generally tend to come off as plus-sized, evil versions of him. Hence, they are kept both scary and darkly funny, which, given that they make up the mainstay of the book’s supporting characters, is entirely appropriate. These are the villains of the piece, and the impetus for the entire story – you want them to stick in the head as much as is humanly possible.
The movie-makers, on the other hand, seem rather nervous at the mere fact of the giants’ existence. They’d much rather shove them aside for as long as possible, so they can focus on and develop more fully the rest of the BFG’s world. I can understand that – after all, there are certainly many charming aspects to the book which children would naturally be drawn to on the screen – but it strikes me as rather disingenuous to go ‘ooh! Look at the pretty pretty things!’ when there are huge frickin’ monsters skulking around, not to mention (if I may briefly delve into literary criticism here) not very Dahl-ian. After all, Roald Dahl was all about the monsters – he created newer, viler terrors for each book, all of which walked the fine between silly and genuinely scary. Why would you adapt the work of an author known for his villains, and then shove said villains offscreen for most of the movie? It doesn’t make much sense to me.
And when the giants do show up, they’re not much like the erudite brutes of the original. They are, to put it plainly, rather clichéd – they’re hulking, slow-witted, drooling bullies, exactly like every other “big dumb evil guy” type that shows up in children’s animation. Sure, they’re menacing enough – the scene with the Fleshlumpeater out on the hunt would probably have scared the wits out of me had I seen it as a little ‘un – but the book’s giants were unique creations, and little of their spirit comes through here, I’m sad to say.
Also, there are two songs that I should mention, for the simple reason that… well, they’re the only two in the movie. While one of them (“Whizzpopping”) is catchy and mood-appropriate enough – not to mention quite funny – the other is just kind of schmaltzy, and both of them feel rather out of place. If you’re going to make an animated musical, go ahead and make one – if you’re not going to, then don’t. Don’t just shove a couple songs in the middle and call it a day – I’ll tell you right now, that doesn’t work.
All that being said, however, the good stuff is still good, and the bad stuff is fairly minimal, and the whole thing is based on one of my favorite books of all time, so I can’t be too harsh on The BFG. The whole affair is just so amiable and well-meaning that it seems to deflect any serious criticism. And honestly, I’m guessing that had I seen this movie as a little niblet, I would have loved it – and as this is, you know, a kids’ movie, that kind of brings discussion to a halt.
So let’s talk about the voices, shall we? Oh, do let’s!
David Jason is the man behind the BFG himself, and while I may have issues with the character’s depiction, that has nothing to do with the man’s performance, which is great. He basically depicts him as a sort of really cool grandfatherly type who never grew up all the way – the guy’s just so gosh-darn endearing that you can’t help but like him. Amanda Root is a tad on the timorous side as Sophie – I’d always pictured her as a bit more forthright – but hey, I guess if I had to adjust to being snatched out of my bed and being carried off to a giant-filled wasteland, I’d be a little nervous, too. Don Henderson voices the giants, and while I wish he’d had more to do, he does a good enough job with what he’s got, I suppose.
So do I recommend The BFG? Basically, yes. While I do earnestly suggest that you or whoever you’re showing it to should read the book first, if the words “Frobscottle”, “Snozzcumber”, “Whizzpopper” and “Trogglehumper” (among others) have already entered your vocabulary, and you’d just like to see a bit more of that Big Friendly Giant, then you’ll probably have a good enough time watching it. I wouldn’t rate it way up there, but it’s certainly not bad, and has just enough of the book’s spirit to make it worth a watch or two. There are apparently those who disagree with me, but… yeah.
Go ahead and watch it. And if you happen to hear some very loud footsteps outside while you’re doing so… well, you might want to draw the curtains. And maybe move a bit further away from the windows. Just a suggestion.
- Apparently, The BFG was one of the few adaptations of his work made during his lifetime that Roald Dahl approved of – which is saying something, given that he was notoriously prickly about such things.
- In the book, Snozzcumbers are black with white stripes. In the movie, the stripes are red.
- On Netflix, the movie is listed as “The Big Friendly Giant”, rather than The BFG. If I had to guess why this was, it’d probably have something to do with the popularization of the term “BFG” (i.e, “Big F***ing Gun”) amongst gamers.
- One of the BFG’s most prominent features are his ears, which are just as big in the movie as in the book. The difference is, in the book they have a reason for being that big, whereas in the movie, they just sort of are.
BFG: I has something very extra-usual to be showing you…
BFG: What I means and what I says is two different things.
Head of the Army: Tanks!
Head of the Air Force: Tanks? Nonsense! Bombs!
Head of the Army: Bombs? Ridiculous! Tanks! And heavy artillery.
Head of the Air Force: Artillery? Piffle! Next thing you’ll be wanting bally cavalry, too!
Head of the Army: Tanks, artillery, and cavalry! That’ll do it!
Head of the Air Force: Modern warfare, mum, demands modern technology. Low-level assault bombers to get under their radar, high-explosive bombs, heat-seeking rockets, and pow! We’ll blow them to pieces!
Head of the Army: It’s an old-fashioned enemy, mum; we need good old-fashioned tactics. Soften them up with bombardment, roll in the tanks, and pick ‘em off with machine guns. Dakka-dakka-dakka-dakka-dakka! We’ll mow ‘em down!
Head of the Air Force: Pow! Kaboom! Bombs!
Head of the Army: Dakka-dakka-dakka-dakka-dakka! Ka-pop! Tanks!
Head of the Air Force: Kaboom!
Head of the Army: Ka-pop!
BFG: What a rotten old rotrasper!
BFG: Human beans is not famous for kindness, is they?
Sophie: What does it taste like?
BFG: It tastes… disgusterous! It’s, it’s-it’s rotsome… well, it’s sickable, yes… urrr-wuugh! It tastes of slimewanglers and cockroaches… Try a bit.
Fleshlumpeater: B… F… G! BFG! I’m coming for you!
Song lyric: Whizzpop, whizzbang, feel the bubbles go down!
Whizzbang, whizzpop, bursting all around!
Whizzpop, whizzbang, take it nice and slow –
You’s never stopping the fabulous feeling of whizzpopping
Wherever you go!
BFG: I is going to be your mother, and your father, and your auntie, and your ankle.
Sophie: I hope you’re not going to be rude.
BFG: Your head is emptier than a bungdongle!
BFG: Hammers and bogswinkles!
BFG: Two rights is not making a left.
Fleshlumpeater: You… You is not giant! You is like human bean!
BFG: ‘Human being!’ Yes! I’d rather be like one of them than be like you!
If you liked this movie, try these:
- James and the Giant Peach
- Just about any movie with giants in it