Steven Spielberg's The BFG demonstrates anew the wondrous possibilities of advanced film technology in the hands of a gifted director. The movie's digital effects—especially the mo-capped construction of outlandish characters around live-action performers, and the magical environments through which they pass—really are impressive, and sometimes enchanting. If only the rest of the picture were more so.
Spielberg sticks fairly close to his source material, the famous 1982 children's book by Roald Dahl (several of whose other works, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox, have already been adapted for the screen). But Dahl's stories derive some of their enduring power from the darkness with which he shaded them. Darkness isn't something that Spielberg seeks out, and so The BFG is quickly drained of tension and almost suffocated by niceness.
English newcomer Ruby Barnhill, 10 years old when the movie was shot, plays Sophie, a plucky orphan in 1980s London. Late one night, peering out an orphanage window, she spies a towering figure sneaking through the streets (a very cleverly constructed scene). This is the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), or BFG, as Sophie comes to call him. He's a pencil-necked sweetie with ears the size of galleon sails—a dream-catcher by vocation, using a long horn to blow the happy dreams he's caught through the windows of rooms where children sleep. Spotting Sophie watching him—and worried she'll give him away—he gathers her up in his huge hand and takes her off to his home in far-distant Giant Country.
Here the movie begins leaking energy. In Giant Country, we spend a very long time puttering around the cozy cave where BFG lives. It's filled with eccentric dream-catching implements and also contains a workshop, hidden behind a waterfall, where BFG keeps his captured dreams in a host of softly glowing jars. The madly detailed production design and ever-circling camerawork here (by Oscar-winners Rick Carter and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) are likely to amaze even the most jaded fantasy film fan. But we take it all in well before the movie lets us move on.
And when we do proceed, it's to encounter one of the movie's central problems—a gang of nine other, bigger giants led by a drooling galoot named Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement). BFG is a vegetarian, subsisting on a diet of icky fruit called snozzcumbers, and a fart-sparking drink he calls frobscottle (this is a movie with a great fondness for flatulence). The other giants, however, are carnivores, who galumph around the country eating children. Now, no one is ever going to make a mainstream movie in which we see kids being chewed up; but some sort of shivery visual allusion to this practice might have given the picture a bit of much-needed edge. What we get instead is a group of comical oafs who are anything but menacing. (There is a fleeting mention of another child who once stayed with BFG, but the disturbing question of what ever happened to him is dropped before it can even be asked.)
There are several more gorgeous scenes, among them a visit to Dream Country, where free-floating dreams flit about like fireflies, and a luminous underwater world where everything is upside down. But wherever the story ventures, it never feels like it's really going anywhere. The movie finally comes alive with some funny scenes toward the end in which Sophie and BFG infiltrate Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth (Penelope Wilton) to take action against the child-eating giants; but these also wander on too long.
Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for his supporting performance in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, is once again an irresistible presence in this film, weaving an air of gentle melancholy around his character even as he's compelled to deal with the BFG's tedious giant-speak (much chatter about "human beans" and "the whole wonky world"). But while Barnhill brings appropriate spunk to the adventurous Sophie, she's given little character to develop, and so spunky is all she can be. The other giants—on one of whom Bill Hader's talent is wasted—are a washout.
Kids may well love this movie, and maybe it'll become a family classic. That'd be nice. But grownups are likely to chafe at its slack pace and one-dimensional characters. And younger curmudgeons may walk away thinking, BFD.