Those who have read Roald Dahl’s children’s book The BFG might find that their feelings about Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation depend on what they found most special about the story. If they were dazzled by the sheer scale of the world, and the idea of a small child living alongside building-sized people, then they’ll likely enjoy Disney’s visual extravaganza and forgive its barest semblance of a plot. But those who loved the vision of the Big Friendly Giant as a conjurer of dreams, a plain-spoken alchemist who wanders the streets of London like an overgrown Sandman, may find The BFG strangely lacking in wonder and feeling.
On paper, The BFG seems like an obvious win for Spielberg. The film marked his reunion with the writer Melissa Mathison, who scripted his masterful children’s fable E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (though she sadly died last year). It’s also the first big-screen version of Dahl’s beloved book and takes full advantage of all the fancy technology required to render the eponymous giant in all his big, friendly glory. But for all its awe-inspiring spectacle, The BFG is a children’s fable that’s more likely than not to bore kids to sleep with its truly languorous two-hour run time. It only really gathers momentum in its wonderful final act, by which point its target audience may have lost the thread.
But, first, the good: The highlight of The BFG is easily its star—Mark Rylance, Spielberg’s newest muse, who gave a performance of tragic simplicity and economy in the 2015 spy drama Bridge of Spies and collected an Oscar for it. There, Rylance played a Soviet agent who had long ago sublimated whatever passion he had for his cause, observing a colossal diplomatic crisis with the passivity of an office drone. Here, his BFG exudes explosive joy, rambling Dahl’s gleeful nonsense dialogue as he furrows and knits his CGI brow.
But the BFG has the same workmanlike, hardscrabble charm as Rudolf Abel of Bridge of Spies, and Rylance has again brought something transformational to a Spielberg film. He gives the kind of performance you can’t look away from, even with all the big-budget delights that abound. Every strange and garbled line, and even his incomprehensible mumbling as he shambles around his dream-cave chopping up giant yellow cucumbers, is engrossing. Rylance is highly gifted at the specific challenge of motion-capture acting, contorting his face into all kinds of silly shapes and sizes with remarkable grace.
The plot is where the film takes a step down. The BFG pretty faithfully follows the structure of Dahl’s book—Sophie, a plucky orphan played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill, is yanked from her bed by the giant after spotting him wandering the streets at night. He takes her back to Giant Country, where he’s revealed to be a mild-mannered runt living among a group of dunderheaded man-eating titans (performed by Jermaine Clement and Bill Hader, among others). Sophie’s initial suspicion is quickly put aside, and she becomes a valuable assistant to the BFG, whose job consists of creating dreams in an underground lab and blowing them into the ears of sleeping people.
If you guessed that this doesn’t sound like enough story to fill a two-hour film, you’d be right: Spielberg spends much of the running time marveling at the world he’s created, with Sophie a frustrated little bean running around the BFG’s oversized home. There are some mild dust-ups with the BFG’s brother giants, larger-bodied but lesser-brained bullies who rely on him for medical attention and sleep aids. There’s also the funny business of dream-catching, which sees the BFG and Sophie running around a big glowing tree dropping terms like “phizzwizzard” and “trogglehumper” with casual aplomb.
Scattered throughout the film are sequences of genuine splendor. The BFG, clad in his cape, leaping across the landscape of Britain to go to Giant Country, is reminiscent of the absolute best moments of Spielberg’s visual storytelling. Sophie cowering in the BFG’s gargantuan kitchen is worthy piece of big-budget showing-off. But there’s not the kind of grand emotional arc that made Spielberg’s best kids films like E.T. or Empire of the Sun so memorable. Sophie starts out willful and remains so the entire time, and while the BFG has to overcome some doubts about publicly mixing with humanity, he does so eventually without much fuss. The idea of dream-conjuring is reduced to a few images of dancing CGI shadows being mixed into a bottle; given the otherwise marvelous-looking world Spielberg has created, these scenes feel disappointingly flat.
The film does, however, build to an incredible climax straight out of Dahl’s book—one involving the very sensible Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), her loyal staff (including Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall), a small posse of corgis, and an incredible amount of fart humor, deployed with as much subtlety as Spielberg can muster. After 100 minutes of snooze-invoking meandering in Giant Country, it’s the kind of singular spectacle that can charm audiences young and old. There’s just not enough of it to make The BFG anything more than a mid-tier children’s fable, a quickly forgettable confection that falls well short of the director’s greatest efforts.