Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” is full of moments of poignancy, but I didn’t tear up until the closing credits and saw the words “Screenplay by Melissa Mathison.”
Mathison, who died last November at 65, wrote some of the best children’s movies ever, including Spielberg’s own “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” and “The Black Stallion,” movies that never pandered to their young audiences. “The BFG” isn’t in their league, but few movies are.
Based on the book by Roald Dahl, “BFG” has some issues with tone, lurching suddenly from sentimentality to action to broad comedy, and the characterizations are a little thin. But its refusal to play by the rules of modern animated films is part of its strength, too, and there are moments of slack-jawed wonder sprinkled across the film like fairy dust.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is an orphan living in 1980s London, an insomniac wandering the halls while the other children sleep. Looking out the window one night, she sees cats knock over a garbage can — and a giant hand emerge to clean up the mess. The hand belongs to the BFG (Mark Rylance), a Big Friendly Giant several stories tall who walks the streets of London late at night, a strange horn in his hands. No lumbering behemoth, this giant is rather graceful as he whirls and slides unnoticed, able to camouflage himself as a lamppost or a tree to hide from humans.
When Sophie sees him, the BFG, fearing further discovery, whisks her up and carries her back to his homeland, known as Giant Country. The good news is that the BFG is a kindly vegetarian who looks after her. The bad news is that the other nine giants in Giant Country have names like Bloodboiler and Fleshlumpeater and love to eat little children. And the BFG seems to be the runt of the litter.
Spielberg creates a magical world, mixing live-action (in Sophie’s case) with CGI (in the BFG’s case), and the line between what’s real and what’s computer-generated becomes hard to see and, eventually, irrelevant. As he did in “The Adventures of Tintin,” Spielberg creates some terrific single-shot action sequences that last several minutes, keeping the camera up close on Sophie as she hides from the ravenous giants.
But the real triumph of “BFG” isn’t in the action, but in how the technological wonders help us believe in the friendship that blossoms between a little girl and a giant. The BFG is a wonderful creation, not just because he’s so lifelike but because there is so much of Rylance’s performance in the creature. Rylance (an Oscar winner for playing the Soviet spy in Spielberg’s last film, “Bridge of Spies”) infuses this big lug with tenderness and loneliness, his eyes crinkling with sadness or shining with joy. In fact, the BFG feels more real at times than Sophie, who seems like your standard, plucky young heroine.
“The BFG” falters somewhat when it gets too wrapped up in the BFG’s “work,” which is to use that horn to blow dreams into the minds of sleeping children. It’s visually delightful — the bottled dreams look like wisps of writhing colored smoke — but narratively overcomplicated. And a detour to Buckingham Palace to enlist the Queen’s help in fighting the bad giants is deathly paced, a 15-minute sequence that seems to exist just to build up to one big fart joke.
“The BFG” reminded me of a gift that a grandfather might give to his grandchildren. It’s a little out of step with what the kids are into these days, and some children might react with puzzlement or boredom. But it’s made with such great care and craftsmanship that it could endure while other more disposable gifts are forgotten, becoming someone's treasured memory.
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