In ‘The BFG’, a director and an actor with big shoes to fill

A scene from Steven Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’.
A scene from Steven Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’.

NEW YORK, July 2 — The BFG — it stands for “big friendly giant” — is a small, friendly movie, an attempt to reconcile the scale and dazzle of modern filmmaking with the quiet, mischievous charm of Roald Dahl’s book. Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by his frequent collaborator Melissa Mathison (who died in November), it chronicles the relationship between the title character (Mark Rylance) and a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill).

The Giant, at first an embodiment of childhood terrors, turns out to be a gentle soul with expressive ears, a melancholy countenance and an inventive, semi-nonsensical way of talking. Sophie is first his captive — he plucks her from the orphanage after she spies him sneaking through the night-time London streets — and then his ward and pal. He lives in a faraway valley with nine other giants who call him Runt (everything is relative) and mock his vegetarianism. They regard humans (“beans” in their lingo) as food, so he has to protect Sophie from them. Eventually, she and the BFG visit the queen (Penelope Wilton) and have a big breakfast with her and her assistants (Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall).

Dahl’s book is a touching, episodic chronicle, illustrated with whimsical line drawings by Quentin Blake. Not as dark and nasty as some of Dahl’s other work for children — it doesn’t have the sinister undertones of James and the Giant Peach or the rebellious anarchy of Matilda — it is touched with sadness as well as with wonder. Spielberg tries to replicate this delicate mood, and compared with other recent entertainment of its kind, including some of his own films, The BFG is notably restrained.

The friendly giant is well acquainted with loneliness and grief, conditions whose sources are hinted at in ways that may mercifully elude the understanding of the very youngest viewers. And while his carnivorous brethren (led by a lummox named Fleshlumpeater, played by Jemaine Clement) are full of slobbery bluster, they project all the menace of untrained sheepdogs.

The digital effects that render both the Giant’s person and his surroundings are exquisite. Instead of flash and noise, Spielberg and his visual team (led by his standby cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski) go for shimmer and glow, with the exception of a few bouts of loud, fluorescent flatulence called forth by the bubbly home brew that is the BFG’s tipple of choice.

His vocation is collecting dreams, flickering webs of light that he catches with a net and stores in carefully labelled jars. We don’t see the content of the dreams, only their colour and shape, and they serve both as receptacles for the film’s gauzy sense of wide-eyed awe and metaphors for its aspirations. Instead of racing through a hectic narrative, The BFG lingers to inhale its own perfume, to revel in the inexhaustibly magical potential of cinema.

Spielberg can only be commended for believing, after more than four decades in the business, in the gossamer glamour of the moving image. But there is something overly strenuous about this particular testament of faith. Like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, another children’s-book adaptation from a high priest of baby-boomer movie worship, The BFG is so committed to inducing a state of breathless wonder that it uses up its own oxygen supply. Adults in the audience are prodded to recapture their long-lost movie going innocence, while their young companions are patiently directed to giggle warmly or gasp in amazement. But having someone whisper in your ear, “Ooh, how mysterious!” or shout, “Isn’t that funny?” has a way of spoiling the desired effect. Spielberg has always been a skilled manipulator of feeling. What’s startling here is how clumsy and uncertain his attempts seem.

What’s missing, above all, is the wild, palpable sense of excitement that has galvanised so many of Spielberg’s other juvenile adventures, from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to The Adventures of Tintin. His approach to the material is dutiful and appreciative, and his devotion to his own craft is impeccable. He lays out an imaginary world in meticulous detail but never grants it full life. There are delights on display, but not many surprises.

The exception might be Rylance, an extravagantly admired stage actor who was the central enigma and the emotional nexus of Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. The BFG is a different kind of movie, and Rylance’s face and body have been enhanced and distorted by digital sorcery, but his unique blend of gravity and mischief imbues his fanciful character with a dimension of soul that the rest of the movie lacks.

Production Notes:

The BFG is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Quiet sadness and loud flatulence. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. — The New York Times

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