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Steven Spielberg's 'The BFG' seeks to recapture the heights of 'E.T.'

Steven Spielberg's 'The BFG' seeks to recapture the heights of 'E.T.'
Ruby Barnhill and a digitally rendered Mark Rylance in the movie "The BFG." (Walt Disney Studios)

"I had a dream last night." The words arrive near the end of "The BFG," and while they are thankfully not to be mistaken for that oldest of story-upending clichés ("It was all a dream"), they nonetheless linger like a melancholy echo over the whimsical high spirits of Steven Spielberg's new movie. In ways both obvious and elusive, the curious logic of dreams is crucial to appreciating this technologically astounding if predictably sweetened adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1982 novel.

As millions of readers already know, "The BFG" is shorthand for "the Big Friendly Giant," played via a brilliant amalgam of performance-capture technology and peerless screen presence by Mark Rylance. At once a protector of the weak and a principled herbivore (he subsists on slimy, nasty vegetables called snozzcumbers), he is also the practitioner of a most unusual artisanal hobby: the collection and dissemination of dreams. The BFG is basically the Sandman on steroids, but he is also a stand-in for Spielberg, a purveyor of big-screen enchantment who has done more than perhaps any other filmmaker to shape the dream life of audiences the world over.

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At no point in his career has the director managed this quite so effortlessly as with "E.T.," a movie that casts a long and inescapable shadow over this one. Released the same year Dahl's book was published, "E.T." also centered around a gnomic being with benign powers, funny speech patterns, an easy rapport with children and a memorable acronym for a nickname. (Both films are the work of the screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who died last year.)

Watch the trailer for "The BFG."

With "The BFG," Spielberg has taken a break from the serious-minded sweep of his recent political procedurals ("Bridge of Spies," "Lincoln") and attempted to fashion a new classic of childhood wonderment. In this he has been only partially successful. Dragged along by the insistent churnings of John Williams' score, the movie is noisy and emphatic at times when a quieter, moodier touch would suffice, and it contains at least one antic sequence, involving a homemade water flume, that could be a prototype for an attraction coming soon to a Disney theme park near you.

But despite the compromises that typically attend a studio-made family entertainment — especially one that has been adapted, however lovingly, from a sharper, edgier piece of source material — "The BFG" also possesses a rich and unmistakably Spielbergian understanding of the loneliness of childhood, and of the enduring consolations that friendship and imagination can offer. Not unlike its title character, the movie can be cloddish and clumsy, but it is also a thing of wily cleverness and lithe, surprising grace.

The movie opens on a haunted nocturnal vision of London, the camera (wielded by Spielberg's usual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski) settling on an orphanage bathed in the warm glow of streetlamps and perfectly placed shafts of moonlight. It's a suitably eerie look for what Sophie (plucky newcomer Ruby Barnhill) describes, with a sometimes wearying gift for overstatement, as "the witching hour" — the same hour that she spies the BFG lurking in the street outside her window. He spies her too, and within moments she's caught in his very large grip, racing northward through the English countryside to Giant Country.

What follows is perhaps the most kid-friendly chronicle of Stockholm syndrome this side of "Beauty and the Beast," though adults may find themselves submitting no less readily to the warmth and wit of Rylance's performance. The BFG has scraggly gray hair, comically oversized ears and a gentle scrape of a voice as inimitable as one of the actor's fingerprints — and it's that voice, more than anything, that gives this digital avatar his soul. Coming off his supremely restrained, Oscar-winning turn as a Soviet spy in "Bridge of Spies," Rylance goes in the opposite direction here; unlike Rudolf Abel, his BFG is a man of many words.

And what marvelously mangled words they are. Mathison and Rylance have more than honored the BFG's unorthodox yet utterly intuitive way with the English language, particularly his affection for the present participle and his blithe disregard for subject-verb agreement. "Words is oh such a twitch-tickling problem all me life!" he moans at one point, though few who hear him will be inclined to agree.

Long before she settles down in the giant's cavernous home (marvelously conceived by production designer Rick Carter), Sophie realizes that her captor has no intention of harming her, let alone eating her or any other "human beans." The same cannot be said of his nine bare-chested brothers who dwell in the hills nearby, and whose fearsome appetites are aptly summed up by their names: Fleshlumpeater, Childchewer, Bloodbottler, et al. (They are played, most of them unrecognizably, by actors including Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Holmes and Bill Hader.)

Dahl's justly beloved children's novels (including the previously filmed "James and the Giant Peach," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Matilda" and "The Witches") are distinguished by their narrative ingenuity and their surpassingly wicked humor — a bracing reminder that children long to be thrilled and even frightened by what they read, not infantilized. In "The BFG," Dahl took a particularly nasty delight in describing every ghastly detail of the giants' dietary habits, laced with riotously crude wordplay. (Sample dialogue: "Greeks from Greece is all tasting greasy.") Absent that mordantly funny sensibility, Spielberg's PG-rated interpretation can't help but feel sanitized by comparison. His giants, Cro-Magnon cannibals though they may be, are played less for bloodthirsty menace than for buffoonish comedy, setting the stage for a few rambunctious but perfunctory action sequences.

Curiously uninvested in its own narrative conflict, "The BFG" is best appreciated as a drolly funny celebration of difference. It's no surprise that the picture springs to life when Sophie seeks an audience with the queen (a shrewdly cast Penelope Wilton), in an extended sequence that throws the BFG's physical enormity into high comic relief. It also serves as a clever sendup of English formality, full of stiff upper lips and splendidly egalitarian fart jokes.

There's no way that Spielberg and his collaborators could have guessed that a silly story of cross-cultural friendship — in which a well-oiled British government acknowledges the humanity of a dangerous-looking outsider — would feel like an ever more resonant fantasy in the post-Brexit era. "The BFG" is a far-from-perfect movie that may have arrived at the perfect moment. Like so many good dreams, it leaves us groping for a past that can never be recovered, but also looking ahead to a future that suddenly seems brighter, and friendlier, than we had dared to believe.

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'The BFG'

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MPAA rating: PG, for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor

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Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Playing: In general release

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