The BFG finds its footing long after its audience has any reason left to care.
Shortly into The BFG, the latest failed adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic, a spindly behemoth whisks a young girl from a London orphanage to a faraway northern land. The kidnapping is breathtakingly elegant. Our title character (the terrific Mark Rylance), whose initials stand for Big Friendly Giant, uses acrobatics to hide in plain sight and then bound across the English countryside. He evades passersby on a city street with ninja-like nimbleness. Then he leaps across oceanside rock formations, in silhouette, like a 24-foot tall, pointy-eared Baryshnikov.
When the BFG reaches his destination in Giant Country and plops the moppet, whose name is Sophie (played by Ruby Barnhill, a spitting image of a pint-sized Tina Fey), into his cave of dreams, we’re suddenly transported, not to a place of awe, but a manic Chris Columbus picture. (The first two Harry Potter installments seem to be inadvertent, and unfortunate, inspirations here.) The film’s former panache is suddenly, and jarringly, replaced by whizzing CGI and frenetic camerawork. For the next hour or so, we slip into a stupor thanks to its minimal plot progression and hokey character development. The narrative void is instead filled with labored attempts at both conflict and amazement. Visual splendor and total boredom ensues.
It’s best to forget that The BFG is directed by Steven Spielberg and written by the late Melissa Mathieson — the same dynamic duo who once brought us the thematically similar, and vastly superior, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It’s been decades since Spielberg has delivered a dazzling popcorn movie. War of the Worlds (2005) and Minority Report (2002) have come the closest: both were riveting, if at times suffocatingly bleak, sci-fi thrillers. But they lacked the wide-eyed innocence of Amblin Entertainment’s 1980s heyday. You’d have to reach back to Jurassic Park, which turned 23 this year, to find the most recent combination of joy and menace that made Spielberg a household name.
Though Spielberg has aged out of such remarkable pop extravaganzas, assured period pictures such as Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, and Saving Private Ryan more than made up for the loss. His recent success with prestige drama may explain why much of The BFG feels so stultifying and lumbering, even if its heart in the right place. The story, bare as it is, focuses on Mark Rylance’s uncanny motion-captured giant, with his sad eyes and topsy-turvy diction. His BFG is a runt who’s tormented by larger man-eating oafs. Sophie, a captive turned friend and ally, concocts a plan to fight back against these gigantic bullies. Her scheme — to rope in the Queen of England (a delightful Penelope Wilton) and the British military, by using the BFG’s ability to manipulate dreams — kicks off the film’s spirited third act.
But by then it’s too little, too late. For all of its fish-out-of-water whimsy — and genuinely funny fart jokes — The BFG’s strong final stretch, much of it within the walls of a fictional Buckingham Palace, only underscores how dull our trip to the fantastical Giant Country has been. Spielberg has fallen into this trap before; Hook’s London-based scenes were far more compelling than those set in Neverland. If Harry Potter has taught us anything, it’s that magic always appears all the more magical when contrasted with the mundane.
So, The BFG finds its footing long after its audience has any reason left to care. Multiple families escaped the theater halfway into the (overbooked) advance screening I attended. And who could blame them? They, no doubt, already know and love E.T.. Why settle for a listless spiritual retread? Pure Spielbergian wonder, however old, can still be found — not in the cineplex, but in the living room.