Spielberg's 'The BFG' Parallels Another Friendly Outcast

Jun 30, 2016
Originally published on June 30, 2016 5:34 pm

1982: a big year for initials. Steven Spielberg releases E.T., and Roald Dahl publishes The BFG. The former stands for Extra-Terrestrial, the latter for Big Friendly Giant — characters who are similarly positioned as outsiders in a child's world where adults are mostly absent.

Spielberg has told interviewers he read The BFG to his children when they were small, knowing that, to them, he was kind of a big friendly giant. Now, with a digitally transformed (spindly neck, elephant ears) and greatly enlarged Mark Rylance in the part, we all get to hear how Spielberg tells the story. Turns out, it's a little scary, and also pretty charming,

Melissa Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for E.T., penned the screenplay for Spielberg's The BFG, and there are some parallels. E.T. is about a boy who encounters an outcast — an alien — in his back yard; The BFG about a girl who encounters an outcast — a giant — in her back alley. The alien eats Reese's Pieces and speaks with some difficulty. The giant eats snozzcumbers and speaks with great originality.

"There'd be a great rumple dumpus," he tells Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) when she wonders why he doesn't show himself to humans. "And all the human beans'd be rummaging and whiffliffning and they'd be lockin' me up to be looked at with all the squiggling hippodumplings and crocadowndillies, and giggyraffs."

Where the girl is kidnapped by The BFG, the boy kind of does the kidnapping of E.T. But in each case, when child and outcast join forces, they triumph over bullies, adversity, and any adult silliness that might otherwise complicate a common-sensical resolution to problems.

This is not to suggest that the two stories offer equivalent levels of enchantment as films. E.T. is a masterpiece, and while The BFG may well be one on the page, on screen it comes across as an attractively produced but overblown fable. Spielberg's good at harnessing film technology in the service of fantasy, and at finding the visual magic in sequences that might in other hands feel like time-wasters — an evening of dream catching that will make adults recall nights spent chasing fireflies, say, or a Buckingham Palace breakfast with the Queen (Penelope Wilton) that feels, in terms of scale, like a child's tea-party in reverse.

But at close to two hours, the story drags, possibly because it's more a collection of incidents than a narrative with forward momentum. Rylance brings subtlety to what Dahl called the big guy's "gigantiousness," and Spielberg makes the rumple dumpus' technical effects pretty...um, fantabulous. Which will doubtless enchant the kids. even if it strikes their folks as it did me....as somewhat strenuous whimsy.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Steven Spielberg's latest movie, "The BFG," is based on a children's story by Roald Dahl. Dahl, of course, wrote other classics like "Matilda" and "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory." BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant. And for NPR film critic Bob Mondello, it calls up memories of another classic.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Nineteen eighty-two - a big year for initials. Steven Spielberg releases "E.T.," and Roald Dahl publishes "The BFG." Spielberg has told interviewers that he read "The BFG" to his children when they were small, knowing that to them he was kind of a big, friendly giant. Now with Mark Rylance in the part, we all get to hear how Spielberg tells the story. Turns out it's a little scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BFG")

RUBY BARNHILL: (As Sophie) Please don't eat me.

MONDELLO: And also pretty charming.

MARK RYLANCE: (As the BFG) You think because I'm a giant that I'm a man-gobbling cannibal? (Laughter).

MONDELLO: Melissa Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for "E.T.," also wrote the screenplay for "The BFG," and there are some similarities. "E.T." is about a boy who encounters an outcast - an alien - in his backyard. "The BFG" - about a girl who encounters an outcast - a giant - in her back alley. The alien eats Reese's pieces and speaks with some difficulty. The giant eats snozzcumbers (ph) and speaks with great originality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BFG")

RYLANCE: (As the BFG) There'd be a great rumple dumpus (ph), wouldn't there? And all the human beings would be rummaging and whiffliffning (ph), and they'd be locking me up to be looked at with all the squiggling hippodumplings and crocadowndillies (ph) and giggyraffs (ph).

MONDELLO: Where the girl is kidnapped by the BFG, the boy kind of does the kidnapping of E.T. But in each case, when child and outcast join forces, they triumph over bullies, adversity and any adult silliness that might otherwise complicate a commonsensical resolution to problems. This is not to suggest that the two movies offer equivalent levels of enchantment. "E.T." is a masterpiece. And while "The BFG" may well be one on the page, on screen, it comes across as an attractively-produced-but-overblown fable. Spielberg is good at finding the visual magic in sequences that might in other hands feel like time wasters - an evening of dream catching that will make adults recall nights spent chasing fireflies...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BFG")

MONDELLO: ...And a breakfast at Buckingham Palace the feels, in terms of scale, like a child's tea party in reverse. But at close to two hours, the story drags, possibly because it's more a collection of incidents than a narrative with forward momentum. Mark Rylance brings subtlety to what Dahl calls the big guy's gigantiousness (ph). And Spielberg makes the rumple dumple's (ph) technical effects pretty fantabulous (ph), which will doubtless enchant the kids, even if it strikes their folks, as it did me, as somewhat strenuous whimsy. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.