Stunning world of giants

117 min. | PG

We know Steven Spielberg is capable of masterpieces. We’ve seen what it looks like when he applies his incomparable skills behind the camera to fascinating ideas or profound emotion. Anything less is held against that standard.

That’s particularly true when he takes on kid-oriented fare. The Adventures of Tintin was brushed off as a busy diversion—even as it crafted breathtaking action set pieces filled with more pure cinema than you’ll find in 90% of family-friendly movies. The BFG may never be counted among Spielberg’s greatest triumphs, but its distinctive pleasures are there in front of you.

Working from a script by the late Melissa Mathison (E.T.), Spielberg sticks close to Roald Dahl’s story of an orphaned British girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who late one evening spots a huge figure prowling the streets. He turns out to be a giant who calls himself the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance)—BFG in Sophie’s shorthand—and he whisks her away to his home in Giant Country. While the vegetarian BFG means her no harm, the flesh-eating giants like Fleshlumpeater are a more dangerous matter entirely.

It’s hard to ignore that one of the main problems with The BFG is Barnhill. While Spielberg has been phenomenal at directing young actors, Barnhill brings only a generic precocious pluckiness. Her work feels like something the film has to overcome, rather than add to its charms.

Its charms, however, are ample. The BFG’s home is remarkable, glistening with the bottled dreams the BFG catches to distribute, and glowing with the cozy warmth of his fire. Spielberg builds wonderful visual jokes into the BFG’s attempts to remain hidden from humans, and lends a magical quality to Giant Country as a world upside-down from ours. As for action sequences—whether it’s Sophie attempting to avoid the mean giants seeking her out or the climactic grand battle—there’s no one you’d rather have choreographing those near misses than Spielberg.

Mark Rylance’s performance here may be just as impressive in a different way as his Oscar-winning work in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. The technical achievement of this motion-capture creation is astonishing, and Mathison’s script gives him plenty of Dahl’s distinctive malapropisms to enliven his dialogue. Rylance gives the BFG soul and a gentle spirit that makes his connection with Sophie feel genuine.

There’s a wonderful scene depicting an elaborate lunch with the Queen of England in which the BFG’s home-brewed beverage causes an outbreak of powerful flatulence. It’s directly from the source material (Dahl’s wicked sense of humor actually could be more present, to cut the fantastical sweetness) and the entire bit is fairly irresistible. If you’re going to go for a fart joke, then by heavens, you should go for a fart joke. That’s the kind of instinct you expect from one of the greatest filmmakers in history.