When perhaps the greatest living filmmaker takes on the favorite story of one of the most belovec children’s authors of the 20th Century, you hope for a truly magic adventure. Instead Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG is charming but slight.
The tale of a young orphan girl (played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who is swept off to Giant Country by the titular Big Friendly Giant (played by Bridge of Spies‘ Mark Rylance via performance capture).
Melissa’s Mathison’s script – her last before her death from cancer the previous year – stretches out a two-hundred-page bedtime story (allowing for large font and illustrations) into almost two hours of screen-time; a feat which even a nifty eye for detail – the BFG sleeps in a housebound ship – can’t quite compensate.
The technical wizardry on display recalls Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, but where that was a free-spirited caper this is more of a heartfelt romp: based around an unlikely friendship between a lonely child and a twenty-four-foot tall giant-vegetarian-runt, it should carry more emotional weight. Even a pack of brutish galumphing giants (led by Flight of the Conchord’s Jermaine Clements), who spend their days dozing fitfully under the sod and their nights roaming the country in search of children to chomp, are more comic than terrifying.
Roald Dahl’s original novel had a grotesquery to it that Spielberg, for all his loving inventiveness, sanitizes somewhat. A single, solitary snozzcumber – putrid and warty though it may be – does not a The Witches make. Barnhill’s speccy know-it-all is pleasant enough and Rylance is his reliably twinkly self, declaiming malapropisms like poetry, but all the whimsy — the third act features HRM played by a deadpan Penelope Wilton and a Falklands-style invasion of Giant Country — doesn’t allow much room to breathe.
Only the scenes of the pair going about their business, like Sophie wandering the deserted corridors of the orphanage in the dead of night, shrouded in a patchwork quilt, or the BFG striding through the English countryside against a blue-black sky, trees bending in his wake, are given any sense of purpose. It’s in these quieter moments that the film comes alive and you remember what Spielberg is capable of when he has a story designed for the cinematic form; instead of one that’s been stretched and padded to fit its demands.
John Williams’ majestic yet sprightly score buoys the action along, but, for those who grew up on the animated version of The BFG, the question is, what does this add? Apart, perhaps, from whizzpopping corgis.