The BFG doesn’t quite cut it

Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the Roald Dahl story is charming, but it's no E.T.

THE BFG (Steven Spielberg). 117 minutes. Opens Friday (July 1). See listing. Rating: NNN

It’s been a long time since Steven Spielberg ventured into proper family filmmaking. 

Sure, War Horse had a certain PG-rated innocence in its depiction of the First World War through the eyes of an equine conscript, and his digital Tintin movie had a great sense of play. But it’s been a very long time since Spielberg has made something that actual children can enjoy: Hook, his attempt at fairy-tale cinema, marks its 25th anniversary this year.

Like that film, The BFG is rooted in the English literary tradition, opening with a lonely but very competent child called Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) living in a London orphanage. This being a fantasy, she’s quickly abducted by a malapropism-prone giant (Mark Rylance in motion capture) and spirited away to his fantastical land, where she discovers that her captor is actually her protector, a gentle soul amongst gargantuan child-eaters.

If you’re familiar with Roald Dahl’s book, then you know what happens next. Sophie and the BFG (or “Big Friendly Giant”) become good friends, ultimately returning to England to alert the Queen to the threat posed by the other giants. This eventually happens in the movie, too, but not for a very long time. This version is much more interested in watching its very different protagonists learn to trust one another.

In that respect, The BFG is a spiritual cousin to an earlier Spielberg picture, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – which might explain why Spielberg tapped that film’s screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, to adapt Dahl’s book.

Like E.T., The BFG seems blissfully unconcerned with pacing, spending at least an hour with Sophie as she explores the giants’ world. And like E.T., it switches gears in the third act for a rousing action finale in which the child hero takes charge to save the day.

This time, though, something feels off. Maybe it’s the more cartoonish depiction of the giants, or the exaggerated “reality” of Buckingham Palace circa 1982, with Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall camping up their roles as staffers supporting Penelope Wilton’s giddy-aunt take on Queen Elizabeth. 

When they turn up, The BFG loses the lyricism that made it feel so delicate and unique. It’s just another kids’ film, and it didn’t have to be. | @normwilner

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