Even Steven Spielberg feels pressure sometimes. On The BFG, the famed director must serve two masters: Roald Dahl’s beloved 1982 novel about a little girl who gets kidnapped by a BFG (big friendly giant), her savior in a land of unfriendly cannibal giants; and a liberties-taking script by Melissa Mathison, who wrote Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and died last year of neuroendocrine cancer. Then there’s the matter of turning The BFG into a movie that can stand on its own.
For special effects alone, there’s no problem: They’re spectacular. And there’s no faulting Mark Rylance, a newly-minted Oscar winner for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, whose motion-capture performance as a 24-foot giant is both subtly nuanced and truly monumental. In a role once intended for the late Robin Williams, the British Rylance is transformed by technology while still looking very much like himself. One scene, set in London by night, shows how the giant manages to cloak his humongous presence by blending in with the scenery. And what a thing of beauty, terror and rare delicacy it is.
Things get “a bit grumbly” — to borrow a BFG phrase — when the worlds of Spielberg and Dahl collide. We’re set for terror in giant country, where the big guy takes 10-year-old Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) after he sweeps her out of her orphanage bed in London. The BFG looks like the runt of the litter, and he is mercilessly bullied by these huge beasts, with such names as Bloodbottler (voiced by Bill Hader), who are eager to chow down on little Sophie. One of these jumbo titans, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), is an expert at sniffing out “human beans.” This is the darkest of Dahl, but Spielberg favors watching the BFG collect dreams in glass jars and blow them into the heads of sleeping humans. It’s a reasonable metaphor for Spielberg’s own method.
The biggest laughs come at Buckingham Palace where Sophie convinces the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and her retinue to enjoy the BFG’s favorite drink, a “frobscottle,” which sets off an explosion of “whizzpoppers” — farts that rival of explosion of flatulence in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. But during a climactic helicopter roundup of evil giants, you want the movie to go for broke and start provoking something more than easy laughter and tears. E.T. did that brilliantly and so did Close Encounters of the Third Kind — family films that could keep mom and dad up nights along with the kids. Regrettably, The BFG plays it too nice and falls short.