FILM REVIEW – THE BFG. With Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Bill Hader, Matt Frewer, Penelope Wilton. Written by Melissa Mathison. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor. 117 minutes.
For children–and those adults with fond memories of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book–THE BFG will likely be an enjoyable experience. Those adults without any such predisposition may not feel the same, especially if–like this reviewer–they are allergic to director Steven Spielberg when he’s being especially heavy-handed.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is an orphan in London who discovers that giants roam the Earth. One of them, whom she nicknames the BFG for “Big Friendly Giant” (an animated version of Mark Rylance), takes her away, fearing she will reveal the existence of giants to others. So, yes, this is yet another Spielberg child who wants to go home. Meanwhile the BFG turns out to be the runt of the giants, the others of whom much prefer eating children to his pursuit of collecting and distributing dreams.
From a technical angle, as might be expected, the film is quite accomplished, mixing live action and animation seamlessly. On almost every other level, though, getting through the film is a chore. Start with the two leads. Spielberg apparently encouraged young Barnhill to play the sort of annoying kid who wouldn’t have any friends at school.
Then Rylance, who deservedly won the Oscar this year for Best Supporting Actor for playing Rudolf Abel in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” plays the BFG as this fey, mushmouthed character who is more irritating than adorable, spouting mangled English (from Dahl’s book) like “buzzwangles” and “slopgroggled” that, no doubt, were more amusing on the page. The other animated giants, while impressive, are also presented as the obvious bad guys. The best Dahl character on screen remains Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” precisely because even young viewers had to wonder if he was a good guy or else quite mad. No such ambiguity here.
To make sure every plot point is overplayed, Spielberg relies on his usual aiders and abettors to beat the audience into submission. The late Melissa Mathison, best remembered for “E.T.,” wrote her final screenplay here. And, of course, composer John Williams never misses a moment to tell us what to feel with his score.
The one sequence where the film comes to life is when Sophie and the BFG arrive at Buckingham Palace to enlist the support of the Queen (Penelope Wilton). As the two sides attempt to make sense of each other, there are moments of high and low humor that was sorely lacking in much of the rest of the film. The one odd thing is that Spielberg and Mathison have kept the setting in 1982 (without ever saying it) so that when the Queen calls the White House and speaks of “Nancy” and “Ron,” youngsters may wonder what she’s going on about, while adults will wonder why they haven’t replaced the Reagan jokes that are thirty years out-of-date.
Before you start sending the hate mail about how charmed you were by the film, and how your children thought it was delightful, reread the first paragraph. “The BFG” will undoubtedly find an audience, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to pretend this giant is less big and friendly than boring and flat.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.