How exciting, in this summer of sequels few people asked for, to be treated to a new family film from America’s best-known and most successful filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. When word first broke that the beloved storyteller would be directing an adaptation of The BFG, a wonderful book by Roald Dahl, another revered chronicler of stories consumed by millions, there was reason to rejoice. Adding to the enticement, Spielberg would be working from a script penned by the late Melissa Mathison, best known as the writer of Spielberg’s enduring family classic, 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Also returning from that film are a couple of the director’s longtime collaborators, producer Kathleen Kennedy and composer John Williams. They’re accompanied by Spielberg’s newest favorite actor, stage star Mark Rylance, who’s fresh off his Oscar-winning supporting turn in the director’s most recent triumph, last year’s Bridge of Spies. What could possibly go wrong? Sad to say, more than I’d like.
The BFG may share similar themes with E.T., and Spielberg has once again captured a wonderful performance from his child lead (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), but he strains to find the magic that seemed to come so effortlessly back in ’82. That’s the same year Dahl’s award-winning book was published, adorned with Quentin Blake’s typically loose, lively illustrations. The endearing messiness of Blake’s drawings is greatly missed here, replaced by the pristine sheen of expensive visual effects that try too hard to make the titular Big Friendly Giant and his surroundings look “real,” in a production that’s ironically unattractive and garish. In other words, the film’s visual style could have used more, well, style.
Rylance brings a real warmth to his motion-captured role as the gangly giant who’s nevertheless chided for his stature by his larger, more menacing peers (voiced by SNL veteran Bill Hader and Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement). And even though the actor doesn’t physically appear on screen, his facial features and expressions have been expertly grafted onto the crinkled mug of the computer-animated character, who greatly resembles the 56-year-old Brit—despite the BFG’s enlarged proboscis and elephantine ears. They allow the two-and-a-half-story-tall “runt” to hear any potential danger as he sneaks around London at night, using a long golden horn to silently blow dreams through windows and into the heads of the sleeping locals. But despite his uncanny ability to blend in with street lamps and pine trees, he’s spotted by the precocious, bespectacled Sophie (Barnhill), who’s been sneaking
about herself, avoiding detection by the administrators in her orphanage when she sees the giant outside her bedroom window.
Fearful that she’ll expose him, the BFG snatches the terrified “norphan.” The image of a room-sized arm breaking through the moonlight as it reaches in to grab the “poor little chiddler” from her bed is an impressive sight, as iconic Spielberg creations go, but it’s not nearly as creepy as you’d imagine, despite the fact that Sophie’s been kidnapped.
And there’s part of the rub. Many of Dahl’s darker edges have been sanded off by Mathison and Spielberg, who’s working with Disney for the first time. True to Dahl’s text, the gentle giant is a “snozzcumber”-eating vegetarian who issues warnings about his “man-gobbling cannybull” brethren, reminding his abducted new friend to remain hidden in his cave. However, not a single “human bean” is eaten during the leisurely tale—unlike in the book.
Instead, much emphasis is placed on comedy. Spielberg has always shown a deft hand with humor when it comes to character beats, but as can be attested by anyone who’s seen Hook, his misguided sequel to Peter Pan (and the film The BFG most resembles), he’s far less successful at orchestrating elaborate, supposedly comical action sequences when he can’t resist telegraphing the punchlines. But if you loved the fart jokes in Dahl’s book, well, Spielberg apparently did too! Kids will likely enjoy the sequence that takes place in Buckingham Palace once the action builds to release. Ahem. Nevertheless, Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton classes up her role as the Queen of England, as do Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, who remain composed through the flatulence, professionals that they are.
And really, despite some unexpectedly ugly visuals, which also extend to occasionally unconvincing integration of the live-action Sophie with the animated BFG, this is nothing if not a professional outing. Probably too much so: It’s too storyboarded (that’s Spielberg for you) and not nearly spontaneous or relaxed enough to completely win you over. Well, except for Rylance, who’s so relaxed while mangling the Queen’s English, he practically devours each unique turn of phrase Mathison has incorporated from Dahl’s text. Or as he puts it, “I cannot be helping it if I sometimes say things a little squiggly,” in a voice so soothing that he risks lulling you to sleep. Somehow, I doubt that’s the type of bedtime story Spielberg set out to make.
The BFG ** 1/2
Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Matt Frewer and Penelope Wilton. Written by Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Directed by Steven Spielberg. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.