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'BFG' Is A 'Delumptious' Pairing Of A Happy Child And A Radiant Old Soul


This is FRESH AIR. Steven Spielberg's latest movie is an adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1982 children's book "The BFG," which stands for the Big Friendly Giant. The film reunited Spielberg with the late Melissa Mathison, the screenwriter of "E.T." It also reunited him with the actor playing the title role, Mark Rylance, who won a best supporting actor Oscar in Spielberg's "Bridge Of Spies." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Roald Dahl would have been 100 years old this September, and one of many reasons for wishing he'd made it this long is so he could hear Mark Rylance speak the squiggly words Dahl invented for his Big Friendly Giant, the BFG. In the new film, directed by Steven Spielberg, the character is computer-enhanced, but it's Rylance who modeled the movements and expressions and it's Rylance who makes the character live with his sublime voice - a melodious Cockney cracked by age, an irreducible mixture of weariness and wonder.

Why am I talking? You should be hearing him. Here's the setup for this scene. The BFG has just kidnapped a plucky orphan named Sophie, played by Ruby Barnhill, who spotted him moving through the streets at 3 a.m. with a bag and a long trumpet, blowing dreams into the heads of sleeping kids. He grabbed her and bounded over houses and into a land of giants that eat human beings - or, as they say, human beans. Now he sits in his rustic cabin where the little girl demands answers.


RUBY BARNHILL: (As Sophie) But why did you bring me here? Why did you take me?

MARK RYLANCE: (As the BFG) Well, I had to take you 'cause the first thing you'd be doing - you'd be scuttling around and yodeling the news that you were actually seeing a giant. And then there would be a great rumbledumpers (ph), wouldn't there? And all the human beans would be rummaging and whiffling for the giant - what you saw - and getting wildly excited, and then they'd be locking me up in a cage to be looked at with all the squiggling, you know, hippodumplings (ph) and crocodowndillies (ph) and jiggyravs (ph). And then there would be a gigantious (ph) look-see giant hunt for all of the boys.

BARNHILL: (As Sophie) I won't tell. No one would listen to me, anyway. I'm an untrustworthy child.

EDELSTEIN: Sophie is based on Roald Dahl's own granddaughter, Sophie, and Dahl reportedly put a lot of himself into the BFG. He was 6-foot-6, famously cranky and saw himself as an outsider, the one who also put dreams into children's heads. If dream-dispensing sounds too precious, the book and movie are also ripe with fart jokes, though the BFG calls them whizzpops (ph). He lets loose with them when he drinks delumptious (ph) frizzy frobscottle (ph), in which the bubbles go down instead of up. Bubbles going up, he says, give you foulsome (ph), belchy (ph) burps.

The movie is delumptious. Steven Spielberg has a gift for translating emotion into the rising and falling of his camera, and he has a marvelous running visual gag. In the first scene, the camera is down low as a cat scurries through the orphanage where Sophie unhappily resides. It looms in the frame like a monster. Then the cat is dwarfed by the girl, who's then dwarfed by the BFG, who's soon dwarfed by other giants. It turns out, he's the runt. Towering over him is the nasty fleshlumpeater (ph), voiced by that terrific comedian and "Flight Of The Conchords" member Jemaine Clement, who'd love to gobble Sophie down.

"The BFG" is clearly a labor of love, but at times, it wears its love too laboriously. In its middle section, in which the giant and the girl leap around gathering dreams and composer John Williams lays on the strings and airy-fairy flutes, I started to get a little woozy-snoozy (ph).

When it opened at the Cannes Film Festival, critics compared the film's tone to "E.T.," which was, like "The BFG," scripted by the late Melissa Mathison. But what makes "E.T." so vivid is not just the bond between a child and a being from another realm. It's the suburban, American setting. I think Spielberg's films are better when there's a tension between his magically fluid technique and a realistic world, one that doesn't look like a computer-enhanced soundstage.

Still, an excess of rapture isn't the worst thing, and the second half of "The BFG" is pure joy. When the other giants kidnap and eat British schoolchildren, the BFG and Sophie go for help to the queen, in Buckingham Palace, where the giant is ultimately invited to dine. Watching Mark Rylance's BFG attempt to be dainty, slurping down runny fried eggs and serenely whizpopping, I thought I'd never seen such a beautiful fusion of happy child and radiant, old soul.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, a tribute to composer Eubie Blake, who is best known for his song "Memories Of You." He wrote such songs as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find A Way" for the 1921 musical "Shuffle Along," which was written by and starred African-Americans. The making of that musical is the basis for the current Broadway show "Shuffle Along." I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Sam Briger is our senior producer. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julien Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.