During the first screening of “The BFG” at the Cannes Film Festival, applause broke out before a single frame of the film, as the logo for director Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment graced the screen. The reverence for this preeminent commercial storyteller goes so deep that his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved 1982 children’s book arrived at the festival as though it had nothing to prove. And indeed, anyone familiar with Dahl’s original work will find that this faithful treatment of the material merges quite organically with the usual Spielbergian tropes, although in this case it feels more like an illustration of preexisting skill than a paragon of its powers.
Featuring a plucky child launched on a supernatural adventure, laced with dazzling effects and sentimentalism, “The BFG” is Spielberg by the numbers — and likely to please viewers looking for just that. But this is a lighter variation of the “E.T.” formula, impressively realized and likable without ever catapulting into more inspired territory. An eager crowdpleaser from one of the world’s greatest crowdpleasers, it gets the job done and nothing more.
The final screenplay by the late “E.T.” scribe Melissa Matheson, “The BFG” takes its cues from the novel by not wasting much time on exposition. The essence of the plot finds little orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill, sturdy if unremarkable) who glances out her London window one night and spots the titular giant (Mark Rylance) lurking through the alleys and pilfering dreams from sleeping humans. Intent on keeping his existence a secret, the BFG — that’s the Big Friendly Giant, for the uninitiated — nabs Sophie from her bed and takes her back to giant country, a distant land where the good-natured dream-catcher cowers in his home adjacent to his much cruder neighbors, a group of human-eating ogres eager to uncover the BFG’s new friend.
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It doesn’t take long for Sophie to get over her fear of her new captor, a transition made somewhat credible by the movie’s exemplary motion capture effects, which contort Rylance’s face into a wizened, benevolent creature. While the bright colors initially make the special effects seem cartoonish, this approach is befitting of the movie’s storybook tone. Gone are the days of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when Spielberg dared to render the kidnapping of a child in the dead of the night by otherworldly beings into the terrifying phenomenon one would expect. Instead, “The BFG” radiates warmth early on, establishing Rylance’s character as a chatty, big-hearted loner whose uneducated dialect (“wiglish,” as he calls it) only adds to his charm.
There is some modicum of suspense to the arrival of the BFG’s carnivorous brethren, a snarling group of hairy, muscular bullies — the BFG dubs them “bean-eaters” — amusingly embodied by the likes of Rafe Spall, Bill Hader and Jemaine Clement with a kind of devious slapstick. As they team up to bully the BFG, a sympathetic Sophie watches from the sidelines and eventually decides to give her new pal a pep talk. Following a wondrous journey back to the city where she witnesses the giant’s ability to capture the power of dreams, she concocts a plan to rescue him from persecution with the help of the queen (Penelope Wilton).
And that’s all she wrote. “The BFG” fills two hours with gorgeous colors and tender exchanges, but it never quite launches into the awe-inspiring territory one might expect from a master of cinematic fantasy. Sputtering into comedic territory during its final third, as Rebecca Hall surfaces alongside Wilton for an underdeveloped royal strategy session, “The BFG” falls short of allowing its emotional appeal to reach full bloom.
Instead, it sags into zany comedy territory, with the BFG’s awkward interaction with the smaller species leading to underwhelming punchlines. This may be the first Spielberg movie with fart jokes — which, admittedly, come straight from the novel. But unlike the recent cosmically-inspired fart joke saga “Swiss Army Man,” Spielberg doesn’t apply this gag to any inspired end point; the comical detour derails the whole story. Despite his command of scale and imagery, Spielberg can’t seem to uncover the tonal center of the material. Unlike Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” which tapped into the underlying melancholy driving the child’s imaginative vision of menacing beasts, “The BFG” takes its events at face value and rarely manages to give them much depth.
Still, there are a number of compelling moments to compensate for the lesser story. Sophie’s trip with the BFG to dream country, which lies beneath a shimmering lake filled with shimmering neon embers, has a phantasmagoric quality that elevates the narrative to appropriately magical heights. The digital wizardry contributes to a unique world that’s both visibly artificial and hyperreal. These days, however, impressive effects are such a given — see the similarly convincing giants of the comparatively DIY Norwegian thriller “Trollhunter” — that “The BFG” can’t mask its slight touch with digital finesse.
Of course, Spielberg remains the preeminent classical Hollywood storyteller our times, whose ability to create astonishing moments surfaces in every carefully enacted camera movement. Visually alluring in every frame, “The BFG” proves that he’s at the height of his powers even when the material doesn’t soar on quite the same level.
“The BFG” opens wide on July 1.