In an age when computer-generated imagery can make anything possible, effects are expensive and miracles are cheap. So it should be said, as emphatically as possible, that the “big friendly giant” in The BFG, Steven Spielberg’s ingratiating adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, is a spectacular creation. Voiced by Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar last year for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the BFG interacts seamlessly with its non-digital counterparts and projects a warmth and tremulous humanity that keeps it out of the uncanny valley. Here’s a story about bridging the gap between a plucky orphan and a fantastical giant, and part of that bridge is technical: If we don’t believe they exist in the same space or if their connection doesn’t register on the giant’s face, then the film doesn’t work.
Much like his animated bauble from a few years ago, The Adventures of Tintin, The BFG feels like a low-stakes experiment for Spielberg, a direct appeal to children through the cutting-edge tools of the day. Dusting off an old script by the late Melissa Mathison, whose work on The Black Stallion and his E.T. has a Zen-like storybook economy, Spielberg brightens the darker corners of Dahl’s book and accentuates its sweetness and charm. He delights in its dopey malapropisms, its jars of fairy-light dreams, and the green, rocket-blast farts that the BFG calls “whizpopping.” There’s the tiniest sliver of melancholy in these two lonely, picked-on characters forging an unlikely friendship, but a spirit of slap-happy adventure dominates.
Representing a throwback to an earlier, broader period of Disney live-action movies, Ruby Barnhill plays the orphan Sophie like Wendy Darling in Peter Pan — precocious and headstrong, with plenty of mobility in a floor-length pajama gown. Given to wandering the orphanage after hours, Sophie happens to catch the BFG sneaking around London with a trumpet-like object, which he uses to blow bottled dreams into children’s heads as they sleep. In an effort to contain his secret, the BFG snatches Sophie and takes her back to his humble abode in Giant Country, where he happens to be the lovable runt of much larger and much nastier species. Other giants, like The Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and The Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), are man-eating bullies; the BFG subsists on a disgusting green vegetable called the “snozzcumber.”
The silliness extends all the way to Buckingham Palace, where Sophie and the BFG appeal to no less than the Queen (Penelope Wilson) herself to put a stop to man-eating giants. This leads to the film’s most delightful setpiece, which has the Queen’s guards and servants giving the two a royal welcome, complete with a whizpopping brunch that alights the palace in green gas and giddy embarrassment. It’s slapstick comedy and princess fantasy rolled into one—Sophie scooping great spoonfuls of strawberries-and-cream with the Queen, the BFG breaking up the room with his all-too-earthy mix of awkward gentility and explosive flatulence. Dahl isn’t above a little low humor, and neither is Spielberg.
Far too long at 117 minutes, The BFG finds Spielberg pressing too hard for wonderment at times, particularly when he’s dealing with the giant’s passion for catching and concocting dreams like fireflies in primary color. With John Williams’ score ladling on the sentiment like glaze on a Christmas ham, the film loses some of the deftness necessary for a story this slight. With so few twists and turns in the narrative — orphan meets giant, orphan befriends giant, orphan and giant appeal to the Queen to fight mean giants — there’s nothing gained in gumming up the works.
Yet simplicity reigns supreme, starting with Rylance’s beautiful performance as the giant and the artistry of the effects technicians who animated it. The BFG’s floppy ears alone recall Dumbo in their expressive twitches, which alternately wriggle like a bunny’s nose or curl back attentively. For a little girl with no family or friends, he’s a sympathetic listener, and her enthusiasm and mischievousness coaxes him out of isolation, too. The biggest emotional moments in The BFG combine Rylance’s working-class humility and decency with subtle wrinkles in the animation that suggest a stirring of the soul. It’s the rare CGI wonder that moves as well as awes.