Steven Spielberg's "The BFG" Is Lightweight But Likable

It was October 2014. Renowned English thespian Mark Rylance hadn’t even wrapped his star-making turn in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge Of Spies” when it was revealed that actor and director would reunite for a live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Rylance couldn’t have known that “Spies” would win him an Oscar and millions of new fans, but he might have had an idea that a bigger challenge loomed: translating decades of classical training into a motion capture performance that would bring to life the whimsy of Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant.

The end result is less than serendipitous, without the towering humanity of “Bridge Of Spies” or the magic that wove “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” into the collective conscious. But it’s warm and genteel all the same, the weight of expectation lessened by Spielberg’s rough track record with true-blue family films (“Hook” and “The Adventures Of Tintin”). Hence, “The BFG” is Spielberg’s best in the genre in over thirty years, in no small part thanks to his new Shakespearean muse. Written by late “E.T.” scribe Melissa Mathison (she passed away with “The BFG” in post-production), the film faithfully recreates Roald Dahl’s world of magic and nonsensical language to pleasant enough effect.

Rylance’s BFG – impeccably realized by a partnership between actor and Weta Digital animators – is the rare giant who doesn’t eat children, content to covertly collect and dispense their dreams under the cover of night (it’s obvious Spielberg sees himself as the character). When a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) spots him, the reclusive BFG whisks her away to his homeland as not to blow his cover. A friendship blossoms, with the pair ultimately coming together to stop the other giants from their murderous ways.

The first hour is a visual treat but plods along on the back of its lead performance, content to loosely trace Dahl’s text. It’s not until Sophie and the BFG call upon the Queen of England for help against the malevolent Fleshlumpeater (the brilliant Jemaine Clement) and his brood that the story comes alive, summoning significant laughs out of Dahl’s trademark affects. There’s snozzcumbers (vegetables), whizpoppers (farts), and even a scrumdiddlyumptious thrown in for good measure, culminating in a royal brunch that’s one of Spielberg’s funniest scenes to date.

Rebecca Hall (“Iron Man 3”) and Rafe Spall (“Prometheus”) turn up therein in supporting roles, but it’s Barnhill (heavily evoking Drew Barrymore’s “E.T.” performance) and Rylance who win the day, seeing the movie through its rough patches. Thanks to them, what might have been an all-out dud becomes something that flirts with erstwhile Spielbergian goodness – and is certainly a better giant movie than “Jack The Giant Slayer.”

“The BFG” – character and movie both – is too mild-mannered to induce any seat-springing feelings of joyfulness, but its old-fashioned pleasures are genuine. Moreover, Barnhill is a terrific discovery and the film leaves plenty of optimism for future Spielberg-Rylance collaborations; the two are good together. If not the family film of summer 2016, “The BFG” is a worthy one, showing more than ever that its director has never been and never will be limited to a single bag of tricks.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: July 1, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Melissa Mathison
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Penelope Wilton
MPAA Rating: PG (for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor)