BFG: Dahl remake ‘too childish’, say critics

Giant investment: Spielberg’s new film cost around $140m (£106m) to make. © Walt Disney Studios

The BFG is out in the UK today. Steven Spielberg’s take on Roald Dahl’s classic novel should be very popular. But the reception has been lukewarm. Should it have done more for adult viewers?

Jaws. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jurassic Park.

Since 1975, Steven Spielberg’s films have often dominated the summer blockbuster season. This year the most commercially successful director of all time has turned his attention to adapting a classic children’s novel.

The BFG sees Sophie, a restless 10-year-old orphan, taken from her bedroom window at night by a Big Friendly Giant. In the ensuing adventure they try to protect the world from the deadly flesh-eating creatures that inhabit Giant Country – and even meet the queen.

The result should be a major hit. It features a ground-breaking animation technique. Mark Rylance, who plays the giant, has been praised for his delivery of Roald Dahl’s delightfully nonsensical language. Dahl’s books have sold more than 200m copies worldwide. And Spielberg was responsible for ET, one of the most successful children’s films ever.

Peter Debruge, of Variety, says it is ‘splendid’ and an ‘instant family classic’. But on its first weekend, it took a disappointing $19.6m at the US box office.

Some suggest it lacks appeal for a wider age group. ‘A parental warning,’ writes Jasper Rees in The Spectator. ‘Unlike a lot of films released for the holidays, The BFG really is a direct mailshot to nine-year-olds.’ Other critics say the plot is ‘whimsical and insubstantial’ and adults may find it ‘too childish’.

The movie bucks recent trends for successful children’s films to explore adult themes and make jokes aimed at grown-up viewers. For example Buzz Lightyear’s existential crisis in Toy Story – when he discovers he is ‘just’ a toy – is a profound moment. The Lion King is based closely on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and its hero Simba grows from a naïve child into a battle-hardened adult.

The Harry Potter books and films, originally intended for children, have gained a large adult following. Some parents have even argued that the Shrek films and Shark Tale went too far, alienating the children supposed to be their audience, and becoming too risqué. So — did Spielberg really get his pitch wrong?

Kidding

Yes, say some. Artists should not patronise children by assuming they only want silly jokes or characters who live happily ever after. Films can celebrate childhood while gently introducing youngsters to trials and tribulations that will face them in future. And adults deserve a payoff for accompanying their children to the cinema.

What a killjoy attitude, respond others. Childhood innocence should be cherished, not suppressed. A good children’s book or film can teach adults a great deal they may have forgotten in their cynical older age. There are enough films for adults as it is; let children be themselves, and have their own fun.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to see The BFG?
  2. Should children’s films also appeal to adults?

Activities

  1. Work in groups of three. Write a one-page summary of a children’s film of your own, giving a list of major characters and a brief summary of the plot. Then discuss: could adults learn anything valuable from your film?
  2. Remain in the same groups. Make a two-minute trailer for your film, making clear who your audience is and why they should watch it.

Some People Say...

“A good story for children is just like any other good story.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not planning to watch this film. Why does it matter to me?
This debate reflects changes in the society around you. If children’s films are becoming more adult, are children being deprived of their formative years? If so, that may have a knock-on impact on the behaviour of you or your peers. But on the other hand, if adults are watching more children’s films, are we all becoming more childish? That could mean more people of your age delaying the responsibilities which adulthood tends to bring.
But the storyline is for children younger than me.
Many people still enjoy the escapism and fantasy which children’s books and films bring. And the things children enjoy can show you what human beings care about at a very basic level, before growing older alters their perspective.

Word Watch

Successful
Spielberg’s films have taken over $9 billion worldwide at the box office alone.
Novel
Written by Roald Dahl, published in 1982.
Adventure
A key aspect of the story is the BFG’s use of a trumpet to blow pleasant dreams into Sophie’s head.
Animation
The film was made in motion capture animation, a method which captures Mark Rylance’s real-life movements and expressions, and transfers them to the animated giant.
Nonsensical
The BFG’s unusual words include ‘gobblefunk’, ‘squibbling’, and ‘whoopsey-splunkers’.
200m
According to the organisers of this year’s Dahl centenary in Cardiff. Dahl’s books have been translated into 59 languages.
ET
The film, featuring a homesick alien, was made in 1982. It took almost $800m in the cinema worldwide.
$19.6m
In contrast, Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which opened in a similar number of cinemas in 1997, took $72.1m in its first weekend.
Critics
Geoffrey Macnab of the Independent and Ryan Bordow of AZ respectively.
Silly
Many of the humorous moments in The BFG are based around flatulence, after the giant drinks Frobscottle.

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