It makes sense that the sensibilities of Steven Spielberg and Roald Dahl would someday collide, as they do in Spielberg’s adaptation of Dahl’s The BFG. Both artists often tell stories about misunderstood children finding connections with misunderstood, fantastical, alien creatures. They have a knack for drawing out the dark and maudlin aspects of childhood, the loneliness and isolation, as well as the capacity for wonder and amazement, the sheer possibility of anything and everything. That dreamy wonderment is the best part of the filmed The BFG, a slow haze that creeps over you unsuspected.
The film is a faithful translation of Dahl’s book, with the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) ably bringing Dahl’s nonsensical language of the Big Friendly Giant to cinematic life. Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a Soviet spy in Spielberg’s 2015 film Bridge of Spies, wonderfully inhabits the CGI character of the BFG, a gentle giant, the runt of his pack, who spends his time catching dreams and blowing them into bedrooms at night. His hillbilly British accent and creative, “squiggled” word combinations spin you up into Dahl’s inimitable style, honed by Mathison.
Opposite Rylance is the precocious Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, the orphan who spies him from her window at night, and whom he spirits away to Giant Country to keep his secret. The lonely, imaginative and smart Sophie finds an adventure in the BFG, a friend, a protector, and in Sophie, the BFG has something outside of his own curious existence to live for. Theirs is a specific kind of friendship, finite, contained from the outset. One does wish that it wasn’t shot so much with the affectionate gaze of a traditional romance story though.
Sophie sparks a great “rumpledumpus” in Giant Country. Her presence is quickly sniffed out by a rugby team of massive giants, with names like Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler, slumbering under sod blankets outside the BFG’s stone door, hungry for human beings. Under attack, she urges her new friend to stand up to the bullies, and even escorts him right to The Queen’s palace for a chat about giant-human diplomacy.
There’s a sweet magic in the film’s style, particularly in the twinkling aurora borealis firefly light of BFG’s dream workshop, where he collects and labels the dreams that he disperses. But there’s also a softness to the dramatic arc of the film, which doesn’t so much march forward as it wafts along, with rather low stakes and all-too-easy resolutions.
There are a few physical comedy bits that go on too long, and explosive green fart humor that does happen to be native to the original text. The third act that departs Giant Country for Buckingham Palace is probably the funniest, but the fish-out-of-water routine goes for broad, easy laughs, and abruptly severs the sense of ethereal incredulity within the world of the giants.
The most effective moments of The BFG are the ones that hit home with wistful emotion, but surprise with the possibilities of magic in connections – those moments that Spielberg and Dahl have defined for a generation.
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Screenwriter: Melissa Mathison. Based on the book by Roald Dahl.
A Walt Disney Studios release. Running time: 117 minutes. Action/peril, rude humor. Playing at area theaters.