Opulently produced and visually impressive but with virtually nil emotional resonance, director Steven Spielberg’s underwhelming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s epic inter-generational love story is a marshmallow ET, a fable set in a magical realm with little magic of its own to mention. Not that this will matter one iota to the billions of children worldwide who voted the 1982 book a firm bedtime favourite and will flock to see this regardless of its many shortcomings.
Playing far younger than expected with a gaudy colour scheme that is pure child-like fairy tale, the family values presented are as superficial as they come. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who penned ET and sadly died last year) has also watered down some of the scarier moments. No question, The BFG is a dazzling meld of live-action and CGI, and an admirable technical triumph all round, but when stacked against the transcendent ET (incidentally released the same year the book was published) it’s a poor second in terms of heart and wonder.
Set in a picture-postcard, nostalgia-brushed 80s, London orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) spies a kindly giant outside her bedroom window one night. Worried of being detected by other mortals should she talk, the BFG (a motion-captured Mark Rylance) whisks her off to the distant Land of Giants. There she learns his job is blowing bottled dreams into the bedrooms of sleeping children and, at 24ft tall, he’s the smallest and nicest giant in a clan of even larger ogres who would like nothing more than to eat her.
Because the BFG is determinedly vegetarian, subsisting on a diet of the putrid snozzcumber (Dahl’s nonsense nouns and gibberish dialogue are pleasingly retained by Mathison) it soon becomes clear that he’s as unloved and neglected as Sophie is back in the real world. Sophie eventually persuades her new friend to approach the Queen of England (a game Penelope Wilton) and ask her to imprison all the bigger “unfriendly giants”. The journey to Buckingham Palace and the preparations for a royal breakfast meeting take up most of the final third of the long-winded whole.
However it’s here that Spielberg swaps the twee whimsy for some fun situational comedy and more potent action beats. The palace staff (including can-do Rebecca Hall and steadfast Rafe Spall) trying to accommodate the BFG’s bulk in the cramped ballrooms and the spectacular air-force finale make for an atmosphere more reminiscent of The Adventures of Tintin than anything Willy Wonka or Matilda. Furthermore, relying on the Queen and her corgis farting luminous green wind for the biggest laughs may be seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator.
While Barnhill’s performance is overly mannered (perhaps the drudgery of working against a green screen is to blame for her occasional remoteness), Rylance is nothing short of brilliant playing the lumbering underdog whose light fantastic grace under fire is his biggest asset. Twinkly-eyed, vulnerable and melancholic, Rylance exudes soulful warmth pours off the screen in a well-rounded, elegant characterisation – even if the CGI does sometimes leave him looking like a Middle-earth Noel Edmonds.
Dahl famously hated every Hollywood movie made from his books, and it’s more than likely he would have felt the same way about this sluggish effort. The digital domain in which the film doggedly resides fails to capture the imagination of Dahl’s prose. It’s Spielberg’s favourite actor of the moment, Rylance (an Oscar winner for Bridge of Spies and star of upcoming The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara), who provides the beating heart of The BFG. And wherever the film seems void of creativity, he fills the gap.