Steven Spielberg’s becalmed “The BFG” is lightly likable yet irritatingly earnest. In a word, it’s “nice.” In her final screenplay Melissa Mathison (“The Black Stallion,” “E.T.,” “Kundun”) adapts the 1982 novel by Roald Dahl, which every thirtyish person I know seems to have read (and enjoyed) as a child. The great actor Mark Rylance (Oscar winner for “Bridge of Spies”) is a humble, melancholy giant among a human-“bean”-eating community of even more giant giants, and he traipses the side streets of 1980s London by night, capturing and repurposing the dreams of children. Bedimpled Ruby Barnhill makes a sturdy, very English Sophie, the ten-year-old orphan who stands her minuscule ground against “murderful” giants, eyes apprising if not quite judging behind oversized, clear-coral-rimmed bookish girl eyeglass frames. (Yes, she’s another member of Spielberg’s mob of lonely children.) “Big Friendly Giant” is the name she gives her scatty kidnapper-turned-protector and her pleas of “BFG?” “BFG?” annoy in profusion. But Rylance rolls BFG’s nattering and neologisms—“a bit crumply,” BFG calls his command of the spoken word—all along the course of his tongue, finding lilt and even lament in the most mannered mouthful of tongue-lolling argy-bargle and malaprop jib-jabbering. (A “Kentish burr,” an Irish critic apprised.) The “telly-telly bunkum box”? Tastiness as “scrum-diddly-umptious”-ness? “Words is, oh, such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life!” he rues. In less-captivating, sleepy moments, “The BFG” offers welcome contrast to the adrenaline jangle of Spielberg’s 2011 “Adventures of Tintin.” Yet the movie comes to life once we are introduced to a determined older female, the Queen of England. There’s a small scene where Ruby assembles a costume for herself from layers of scraps of fabric BFG has accumulated across time and her modest moment of invention may be one of the film’s most thrilling: a keen, cool character characterized cleanly. There’s another where she urges herself, “Jump, Sophie!” and Sophie does and the elegant choreography of an action lasting only seconds is breathtaking: a small figure in night clothes curls into itself and ninety degrees to the right, a large palm with long equally curled figures captures, embraces and saves the daring child. (She makes another such apparition on the Queen’s windowsill and it’s a smashing reveal as well.) There are echoes of influence of Powell-Pressburger (“The Thief of Bagdad,” “The Red Shoes”) but Spielberg would never be as neurotic as that filmmaking duo. Small, smart girls may justifiably love “The BFG.” And boys? There’s always the Rube Goldberg-esque scene in the Palace where fizzy farts burst free from all assembled, from giants to Queens, to the strains of a squad of bagpipers. The film is dedicated to “our Melissa.” With Rebecca Hall and computer-generated magnifications of Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader. 115m. Reviewed in 3D. (Ray Pride)
“The BFG” opens Friday, July 1 in the usual array of premium formats.
Ray Pride is Newcity film critic and a contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine. He is also a photographer: his history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images is forthcoming. Previews on Twitter (twitter.com/chighostsigns) as well as daily photography on Instagram: instagram.com/raypride. Twitter: twitter.com/RayPride. (Photo: Jorge Colombo.)