From The Witches to Fantastic Mr. Fox, ranking the big screen children’s stories of Roald Dahl.
With the release of Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, another entry has been added to the Roald Dahl cinematic universe. Box-office success isn’t quite what these adaptations are likely remembered for; in fact, many of them are considered failures. Where these films find their life though is in the home, whether that be VOD, DVD, or even VHS. There are particular elements that are frequently shared in Dahl’s works including his macabre sensibilities, frequently orphaned children, and the ability to find light behind all the darkness.
We took a look at seven of his most popular adaptations for children – and we’re not including television movies, 1989’s animated take on The BFG, or his terrific adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – so let us know where you think we went wrong. The films are ranked below from hot garbage to absolute classic.
7. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is more Burton than Dahl, and that comes with its own ups and downs – an example of the latter being that his involvement pretty much guaranteed that Johnny Depp was going to play the mad candy-creator, Willy Wonka. We still follow Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and a group of children finding golden tickets to enter the mysterious Wonka factory, but while this adaptation may be closer to the Dahl’s vision signature moments from the first feature are missed and a misguided attempt at creating a backstory for Wonka is bonkers in a bad way. His father (Christopher Lee) was apparently a dentist who forbid Willy from ever having candy? That’s the best they could do? Depp does his best with the role and isn’t even the biggest issue with the film. The film sure looks pretty, but underneath the wrapper there’s something cold, hollow, and tasteless where joy and imagination should be.
6. The Witches (1990)
Who thought is was a good idea to let Anjelica Huston casually tear her face off? Odds are, the answer sits with the film’s director, Nicolas Roeg, the man behind such noted films for children as Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Don’t Look Now. The story here follows a young boy and his grandmother spending time at a hotel while she recovers from a diabetes episode. Unfortunately, a large convention of witches are staying there too and have sinister plans in store for the children of the world. The film remains terrifying to this day thanks to the spectacular makeup and effects work from the Jim Henson studio, not to mention the nightmare fuel of Huston’s performance. She remains the de facto reason to revisit the film, but aside from her there isn’t much here to recommend. Child performances in Dahl adaptations are pivotal to their success, but the lead here seems ill-suited for the role.
5. James and The Giant Peach (1996)
Big names attached to a project can significantly alter one’s perception in regard to accountability and credit. Tim Burton was involved with this effort, but it’s actually Henry Selick who brought it to life. James lives with his wicked aunts after – surprise! – the tragic death of his parents. When all hope seems lost though he’s visited by a man who gives him crocodile tongues said to contain a great magic. One thing leads to another, and as is often the case in life, he eventually ends up in a enormous peach with a band of talking insects who journey with him towards his ultimate goal of New York City. The biggest issue here is that the story being told is stretched way too thin. While the original novel is a classic in its own right, the film fails to work as a direct adaptation. In order to solve some issues of brevity, Randy Newman was brought in to add songs to the production, but they fail to delight audiences and instead feel like what they are – filler. The film tries to create a balance between live-action and stop-motion, and given the complexities of putting this together pre-CG they succeeded pretty well. On the flip side though, whereas some alterations to novels can be detrimental this film would have benefited from far more of it.
4. Matilda (1996)
Danny DeVito can’t get out of his own way with his directorial efforts here making the film feel comically magnified by the extreme close-ups and abrasive tonal shifts. In a change from other Dahl stories, the dilemma is not that young Matilda’s parents are dead but are instead extremely neglectful and uncaring. They aren’t the only terror though because the principal of her school takes abuse to another level. Matilda has an advanced intellect that needs to be nurtured, and perhaps the only person to see that is her teacher, Miss Honey. The film struggles with tonal shifts including one instance that may be among the darkest children film material you’ve ever witnessed only to turn so saccharin sweet it will make your teeth hurt. Unrelated, but your appreciation of the film may also be directly proportionate to what you think of Rusted Root’s “Send Me On My Way” which is featured prominently and repeatedly. The film can be delightful in small doses, but it is too concerned with its own rhythm to really tell a coherent story.
3. The BFG (2016)
Luckily for the Dahl cinematic legacy, the perfect combination of talent was found to bring his latest adaptation to life. Steven Spielberg provides his take on the story with his new muse, Mark Rylance, and newcomer Ruby Barnhill, and the result satisfies on multiple levels. Sophie (Barnhill) lives in an orphanage, and as per most of Dahl’s protagonists, leads an unfulfilling life. One evening she sees something she shouldn’t have and gets whisked away into the world of giants. Luckily for her, the giant who snatches her up is on a strictly vegetarian diet unlike his flesh-eating peers. The BFG benefits greatly from modern technology providing a stomping ground for both human and giant alike. Some of the jokes go for the lowest common denominator, but the CG allows Rylance to still feel human which in turn lets Barnhill act opposite a person as opposed to something not there. Spielberg has an uncanny ability for finding young actors as Barnhill proves to be a significant talent, and everyone’s skills combined result in a film that should delight adults and children alike.
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Stop-motion has advanced quite a bit since James and the Giant Peach was released, and the visual appeal of Fantastic Mr. Fox combines with whimsical dialog and an attention to detail offering exactly what you’d ask for in a Wes Anderson children’s film. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has a problem that can be traced back to his strong desire for stealing chickens. Unfortunately for him, the farmers he tries to steal from are wealthy, mean, and want him dead, and by way of revenge they proceed to to dig Mr. Fox, his family, and friends up and out from their homes. Anderson has always had a mean streak to his work, and he’s the perfect fit for bringing the sensibilities of Dahl’s writing to life. The film ultimately isn’t concerned about whether kids will be along for the ride or not as it beats to the rhythm of its own drum. Not only is the look and design of the feature perfect, but the voice cast is excellent with the likes of Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray joining Clooney and others. It’s arguably the greatest adaptation of a Dahl story, and might even stand as Anderson’s greatest cinematic achievement.
1. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
What could be better than having your dreams and wishes come to life? Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory follows a boy through an adventure beyond his wildest imagination, and this magical musical takes viewers along for the ride. Charlie and some other children find a world full of their dreams, but their greed leads many of them to nightmares. The film remains iconic to this day for two simple reasons: a career defining performance from Gene Wilder and memorable, quotable, classic songs. Wilder will always be Willy Wonka, and even though Dahl has publicly stated his hate for the feature, it remains the signature adaptation of his works.