- The BFG
- Written by
- Melissa Mathison
- Directed by
- Steven Spielberg
- Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill
A lonely child from a troubled family background meets a creature from another world and discovers not an alien monster but a new friend. Inevitably, Steven Spielberg's The BFG will be compared with his 1982 mega-hit and dubbed the E.T. for the CGI generation. And if that is the comparison, inevitably The BFG is going to disappoint.
Enlivened with some fabulous computer-generated images of roaring giants and soaring dreams, the movie is a faithful and solid adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's book, but Spielberg himself seems largely uninspired by a fabulist's story that feels unsuited to the director's more sentimental narrative style. The movie trots pleasantly along, but it never races.
Perhaps the director has waited too long. The book dates to 1982 and the project has languished in development for decades – Robin Williams was originally cast in the title role – as producers waited for the computer technology that would allow the actor playing the giant (Mark Rylance, fresh from his Oscar-winning turn as the Russian agent in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies) to interact directly with little Sophie (the young Ruby Barnhill) on the same stage.
The wait has paid off in the performances – there is a real rapport between Barnhill's pleasantly emphatic Sophie and the protective vegetarian played by Rylance, who delivers a notably subtle performance as Spielberg calls on him to play the oddly principled outsider for the second time in a row. The special-effects department does a credible job turning Rylance's face into a thing of mighty ears and massive nose as well as creating suitably monstrous versions of the child-eating giants from whom he must rescue Sophie. And the scenes in the land of dreams are among the most magical in the movie as Sophie and the giant chase after twinkling apparitions whirling about like oversized fireflies.
Screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who also wrote ET: The Extra Terrestrial and died shortly after completing this project, skillfully recreates Dahl's brilliant gobbledygook – "There would be a great rumpledumpus, wouldn't there? And all the human beans would be rummaging and whiffling for the giant what you saw" – but in its broader outlines the script is a plodding thing that suffers from some non sequiturs and awkward bridges.
Most of all, its director seems distracted, as the physical action between the marauding giants slackens or the comedy when Sophie and the BFG approach the Queen for help proves less than hilarious.
Sure, it's funny watching the corgis skitter across the palace floor after imbibing the giant's explosive frobscottle, but as a set piece built around a flatulence joke at royal expense, the sequence proves surprisingly tame.
Sophie initially appears at the palace wearing a perfectly clean version of a pink nightgown that was previously seen covered in snozzcumber goop and had to be replaced with another child's cast-offs: you have to wonder at such an obvious gaffe and ask if Spielberg has his heart in this thing.
His last children's movie, 2011's Adventures of Tintin, was a miracle of motion-capture animation with a script that hacked Hergé's books to pieces and missed their humour. This film, on the other hand, is highly faithful to the book – which may be part of Spielberg's problem. He's a sentimentalist and a moralist, but Dahl is not – that's why kids love his books. And for all its whopping implausibilities, The BFG is refreshingly free of any big moral or sentimental crescendo. It's a farcical adventure with a happy ending, lacking the emotional high notes Spielberg so likes to hit, so no wonder his conclusion feels a bit limp.
When the giant reaches out a giant finger to touch Sophie's tiny hand, the echo of E.T.'s famed digit only emphasizes that this overwrought moment is out of place in a smaller film.