A&E // 1989 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // August 18th, 2006
"There's not another giant like me in all of giant country. I is the big friendly giant." -- The BFG
Sometimes, it's best not to return to childhood memories. Though I had never before seen Roald Dahl's The BFG, I grew up reading and enjoying the works of Roald Dahl. This is not how I remember his stories. I'm not sure whether it's because I've gotten older or because this film is a poor adaptation, but I came away from this experience quite unimpressed.
The story begins late at night, in the darkened bedroom of a British orphanage. Sophie (Amanda Root, Jane Eyre) huddles alone, the only girl awake. She sneaks over to the window, where she sees an enormous form towering over the houses in the town. It's coming her direction. She covers her mouth to stifle a scream, but it's too late. A massive hand grabs her. Before she knows it she's been whisked off into a world of danger and giants.
Fortunately for Sophie, she was grabbed by the self-proclaimed Big Friendly Giant (David Jason, Count Duckula), a vegetarian, entirely non-child munching giant who lives a lonely life as he collects nice dreams that he blows into the windows of children at night. Learning that Sophie is lonely too, he lets her tag along on his daily routine. When they learn that giants are ravaging the orphanage where Sophie lives, it's up to the two of them to stop the giants -- for good!
Film adaptations of children's literature are strange. We live in a society in which many children go through school functionally illiterate. Television and movies are often the scapegoats for this situation because it takes less effort to watch a story than it does to read the book. But great film adaptations actually encourage reading, as we've seen recently with the Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia film franchises. When a movie version does what it should, it distills the essence of the book, giving children a taste of the joy they will get from reading it. Reluctant readers gain the confidence of knowing the basic story, which helps them follow along.
A bad adaptation does the opposite. Instead of encouraging reading, it simply offers 90 minutes of mindless entertainment, awkwardly spitting out a pre-fab story. Roald Dahl's The BFG is is one of these. If the filmmakers had any real love for the source material, it doesn't show. I can't imagine children watching this, then hunting down the book so that they can get more of the delightful story.
The biggest problem with this production is that the story doesn't really suit the medium. Roald Dahl's The BFG is a dream-like flight of fancy, one that would work well for children with vivid imaginations. Visualizing such fantastic surroundings would be one of the major joys of reading the book, and although it doesn't make much sense at times, there is a dreamlike structure in the story that parallels Sophie's experiences. None of this translates well to screen, especially on such a low budget. The fantastic backdrops are flat and bland, the animation is shoddy, and the story comes across as ridiculous when we actually see these characters in the animated flesh. Although I'm sure Cosgrove studio was working with quite a small budget, that doesn't change the fact that it's a pretty ugly looking film.
The designers have also emphasized the wrong parts of the story. There are endless conversations between Sophie and the BFG, but they don't develop the two characters well at all. Much of this conversation deals with the BFG's creative use of the English language, which would be far funnier in print than it is when spoken aloud. The musical numbers, while mercifully few, also slow things down considerably. The main number is about flatulence, which is completely silly and only serves to set up a one-liner at the end of the film.
Books are allowed to be a bit harsher than films as well. The giants here are scary, but it's clear that the studio was working very hard to ensure that its young audience wouldn't actually be scared. This also leads to a major flaw, which ruins the end of the story. Sophie and the BFG need to build the courage to fight the giants because the orphanage that Sophie lived in was attacked. Verified by the newspaper, the children were missing, but bones were found scattered around the orphanage. Then, at the end of film, we see all the girls from the orphanage, back from the dead, ready to move into their new wonderful home. This is the biggest plot hole ever, and is obviously there to soften the blow of the deaths.
I'm not any more impressed by the transfer from A&E. While they can't have had much to work with here, quick character movement causes a lot of jitter in the animation, and the color transfer is quite bland. The stereo track is easy to understand, but it doesn't create a very impressive soundstage. The only special feature is a chronology and bibliography for Roald Dahl.
Obviously, I don't recommend Roald Dahl's The BFG to anyone. There are hundreds of great family-oriented DVDs out there, and little reason to waste time and money on crap like this. Here is my real recommendation: Go find a copy of The BFG book, curl up with your kids on the couch some evening, and read it to them. Who knows, it might even get them interested in reading. Meanwhile, I'm sending this film version into exile.
Review content copyright © 2006 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Roald Dahl Chronology
* Roald Dahl Bibliography