Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book about a young orphan and her bond with a big friendly giant couldn’t have landed in better hands than Steven Spielberg’s. Over the years, associated in different creative capacities on films like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins and The Goonies, Spielberg has delivered compelling stories about childhood, experienced largely through the wide-open eyes of innocent kids themselves.
Yet, despite representing a marriage of two iconic imaginations, The BFG never achieves the greatness of other unlikely man-and-beast friendships like King Kong, Free Willy, or E.T. whose screenwriter, the late Melissa Mathison, is credited with writing this script.
It’s the script itself that is the problem here, lacking the warmth and the wit, and the sense of awe and wonder that might have rescued it from sinking into an abyss of mediocrity.
When a plucky orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) catches sight of a black-coated giant prowling the streets of London late into the night, he whisks her away to Giant Country in order to protect his secret. Petrified at first, once there she discovers he’s a kind, gentle creature who catches dreams, bottles them, and distributes them to sleeping children. He’s also vegetarian, unlike his nastier brethren who like nothing better than to devour children.
There’s an undeniable sweetness to the friendship that builds between Sophie and the BFG, who must hide her and then valiantly defend her from his fellow giants when they come sniffing. But the movie suffers from serious pacing issues, particularly around its meandering middle portion. It all feels interminably stretched out for no reason, and there’s very little of that of spirit of adventure and excitement that has powered Spielberg’s other family friendly films like The Adventures of Tintin and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The film redeems itself to some degree in its final act, when Sophie and the BFG show up at Buckingham Palace seeking help from the Queen of England (an amusing Penelope Wilton). The humor, however, remains juvenile as a whole breakfast party – including Her Majesty – breaks into farts after consuming the BFG’s fizzy concoction.
British actor Mark Rylance who won an Oscar for his performance in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, brings the lanky, jug-eared, five-storey tall giant to life with a (motion-capture) performance that is subtle and nuanced. Relying on the character’s fractured, amusing vocabulary and his innate charm, he forms a winning rapport with young Barnhill, who is spirited but sadly trapped in a one-dimensional role.
There’s no denying that The BFG is brimming with earnestness, but while it’s visually impressive and occasionally gripping it leaves you feeling a bit cold in the end. I came out feeling that an opportunity had been lost. It’s far from one of Spielberg’s unmissable gems. I’m going with two out of five.