The Challenges of The Original Animated Version of The BFG

With Steven Spielberg's The BFG in cinemas, we look back at the 1989 Cosgrove Hall adaptation feat. David Jason…

On Christmas day 1989, ITV premiered the most charming child abduction story ever told: Cosgrove Hall’s animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

Directed by Brian Cosgrove, co-founder of the UK animation studio behind The Wind In The Willows, Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, and a whole raft of the sort of kids’ TV that thirty-somethings still get excited about in pubs, The BFG was, and is, a lovely thing.

Imaginative, funny, and just on the trippy side of weird, the film tells Roald Dahl’s story of orphan Sophie and the titular Big Friendly Giant’s scheme to stop bigger, much less-friendly giants from roaming the globe and gobbling up human beans. But before Cosgrove and co-producer Mark Hall could relay that tale, they had their own challenge to face: pleasing the man himself…

Adapting a Dahl book in his lifetime meant risking the displeasure of the author, a man famously unhappy about a number of his works’ screen adaptations. Prior to and after The BFG was made, Dahl had taken exception to plot deviations, casting choices, and – in the case of 1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory – his original screenplay being largely rewritten. 

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Dahl so disliked 1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory that he put the brakes on the producers’ planned adaptation of its sequel, Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator. Having championed British actors Spike Milligan, Ron Moody, or Jon Pertwee for the role of Wonka, Dahl was reportedly at odds with the decision to award the part to Gene Wilder.

Further alterations to Charlie & The Chocolate Factory saw Charlie’s title spot taken up by the eccentric factory owner in an attempt to push the sale of tie-in Willy Wonka chocolate bars (a persistent rumor suggests that the Vietnam-era connotations of “Charlie” led to the title change, though the merchandising explanation surely trumps the NATO alphabet one in the plausibility stakes).

Cosgrove Hall’s The BFG led to no such public quarrel, thankfully, Roald Dahl declaring himself as charmed by the production as anyone (though his hackles were reportedly back up only a year later thanks to the “utterly appalling” happy ending tacked on to Nicolas Roeg’s version of The Witches). After okaying Brian Cosgrove’s initial sketches for the title character, and approving the rushes, Dahl and family applauded after the film’s first screening, much to the relief of its animators. 

The BFG’s trump card was undoubtedly having David Jason voice the lead role. Also the man behind Mr Toad, Danger Mouse and the original vegetarian vampire (before sparkly Edward and pals jumped on the bandwagon), Count Duckula, Jason’s distinctive yet flexible voice performances were as integral a part of Cosgrove Hall as Mel Blanc was to Looney Tunes.

As the BFG, Jason lifted Dahl’s inventive lexicon of disgusterous snozzcumbers and gloriumptious winksquibblers right off the page and made it dance. Even the film’s somewhat uneven songs – the best by far being Jason’s rap-style ode to whizzpopping – are given pep by his performance. Not all of the book’s delicious diction makes its way into the adaptation – gorgeous Spoonerism Dahl’s Chickens (the BFG’s favourite writer) makes no appearance, and the brilliant dream descriptions are cut seriously short, though John Hambley’s script does a great job of capturing the writing’s texture.

Incidentally, does Dahl’s whizzpopping scene strike anyone else as an ironic inclusion considering his reputed dislike of the belching sequence in Willy Wonka? Unless perhaps, a sly dig can be read into the line “Burping is filthsome” the BFG said. “Us giants is never doing it.”

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Cosgrove’s design for Jason’s character is as distinctive as his voice, no small achievement when Quentin Blake’s illustrations are so immortally entangled with Dahl’s stories. With his pixie-ish ears, pronounced nose, and half-halo of white hair, Cosgrove’s BFG was less whimsical looking than Blake’s scratchy elephant-eared and pin-eyed creation, and slightly scarier, to begin with at least. 

There’s no denying that The BFG is a scary story (and possibly the sole kids’ tale in which an entire primary school is massacred, leaving behind only a pile of bones) so it’s fitting that Cosgrove Hall didn’t balk at adding scares as well as laughs. The opening – in which Sophie sees an enormous semi-transparent hooded figure stalking the high street of her village during the witching hour – is decidedly creepy, and the story’s carnivorous, slobbering giants are just as fearsome, if not more so, than described in the book.

The design of Sophie’s character is more generic than that of the BFG, though neatly, she sports the same John Lennon glasses her namesake Sophie, Roald Dahl’s granddaughter, was said to wear at the time. Voiced by Amanda Root, Sophie is a clever, kind child, and one with a characteristically grim back story for a Dahl protagonist.

Like the giant peach’s James, whose parents are eaten by an escaped rhino, or the boy from The Witches, whose mother and father are killed in a car accident, or even Matilda‘s Miss Honey, young Sophie is an orphan, and mistreated by the person who is supposed to care for her. The relationship that Jason, Root and the animators conjure up between the lonely little girl and her giant friend is touching, but not soppy, and seen no better than in the film’s slightly altered ending, which has the BFG return home to Giant Country, Sophie in tow.

The journey scenes between the world of human beans, Giant, and Dream Country are pleasingly psychedelic, an effect achieved in part by a 35mm super-cranked camera filming paint swirling around a fish tank according to animator Brian Turner.

Malcolm Rowe and Keith Hopwood’s original score for the golden and pink-tinged hallucinatory scenes was a synth-y Jean Michel Jarre-style departure from previous work on The Wind In the Willows and Rod Hull And Emu, and provides a good chunk of the other-worldly atmosphere achieved in the film. 

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The more realistic portrayal of England, Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II and the air force troops (an integral part of Sophie’s plan to rid the land of troublesome giants) next to the abstract design of the more mind-bending sequences makes for a schizophrenic overall style, but chalk it all up to retro charm.

Slightly more damaging to the film’s chance of capturing a young audience today is its pace, which moves much more slowly than is the trend in contemporary kids’ animation. A number of The BFG’s 87 minutes are wordless, and the extended pursuit between Sophie and the Bloodbottler giant towards the end of the film may leave some viewers urging things to move along.

It’s now thirty four years after Dahl’s book was first published, and enthusiasm for its wildly inventive tale shows no signs of waning. A hit BFG stage show did the rounds a few years back, and Steven Spielberg’s version featuring a CGI Mark Rylance is currently in cinemas. Cosgrove Hall’s twenty-seven year old animated feature may be less of a technical feat than the latter and was certainly made for a fraction of the budget, but that doesn’t make it any less a whoppsy-whiffling, razztwizzling tribute to a terrific story. 

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK in September 2012. It was updated in July 2016.

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