Review: Big hits, big misses in Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’
Magical at times and ponderous at others, Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” is a big, friendly mixed bag, a very talky adventure that can’t figure out how to capitalize on the great character at its center.
Or, in the inventive (if frustrating) language of author Roald Dahl, it’s a whoopsie-splunkers, whizz-popping snozzcumber that is part froggle-frump, part troggle humper. Which is to say it’s part childlike wonder, part precious gibberish.
Like Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” it’s a kid’s movie by a guy who hasn’t been a kid in 60 years and doesn’t seem all that interested in what today’s kids are into. It’s like when a grandparent plans a day for the young ones based on what’s good for them, rather than what they’ll actually like. It’s wishful thinking on a giant-sized scale.
Whether kids will buy into this refined tale of a peaceful British giant who catches children’s dreams and is eventually granted an audience with the Queen of England is one of summer’s biggest gambles. There are several flatulence jokes, and kids like those. The rest is a roll of the dice.
The film does feature a pair of gee-whiz sequences, starting with the opening, where a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) meets the BFG (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) late at night when she can’t sleep. The BFG — for the Dahl-deprived, that stands for Big Friendly Giant — moves about the streets in silence, hiding in the shadows and posing as a streetlight or a tree in a dazzling set-piece that captures the wonder of Spielberg’s creation and looks like a storybook come to life.
The BFG is a CGI being based on Rylance’s features, and the actor’s welcoming eyes and kind voice lend the giant a spectacular warmth. Late in the film, when he gets to meet the Queen, in an extended sequence that doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the movie, the movie finally takes full advantage of the giant, his massive scale (he uses a pitchfork to eat pancakes) and the playfulness at the film’s disposal.
Elsewhere, the film gets bogged down in Dahl-speak — it’s too twee by half — and loses its way in its flabby center.
Much of the story is spent in the land of giants, where the BFG must fend off his peers, who eat children like they’re jelly beans. The problem is they’re just not all that interesting, despite having names like Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) and Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement). Sophie is forced to hide out in the BFG’s lair while the other giants sniff around for her, and Spielberg whirls the camera around in a series of close calls that never really feel suspenseful.
And there’s all sorts of business with dreams, as the BFG uses a large horn-like device to blow dreams into children’s heads. He also captures nightmares and concocts a plan to implant them into the other giants’ heads — are you still following? It’s complicated and worse, dull.
Spielberg, directing his first kids movie since 2011’s “The Adventures of Tintin,” treats “The BFG” like high tea, which is welcome at a time when everything else is burgers and french fries.
As a character, the BFG is a wondrous creation, and Rylance does a magnificent job bringing him to life. But the film only occasionally reaches its potential and otherwise feels like a missed chance at giant fun. Talk about bogswinkles.
Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor
Running time: 117 minutes