‘The BFG’ is no big deal

Steven Spielberg loves introducing children to alternate universes and amazing creatures.
Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance in "The BFG." (Disney)
Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance in "The BFG." (Disney)

Steven Spielberg loves introducing children to alternate universes and amazing creatures.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park” aren’t just technological wonders, they’re great original kids’ adventures. His magic act works less effectively when he makes faithful adaptations of existing children’s classics. His 2011 duo “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin” deserve polite golf course applause; his Peter Pan remake “Hook” was bang-your-head-on-the-desk awful.

’The BFG’

DIRECTED BY: Steven Spielberg

STARRING: Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill

RATED: PG GRADE: B-

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

Now he gives us “The BFG,” a story of a plucky English orphan girl and a huge, gentle fellow trying to stop bigger, meaner giants from gobbling British lads and lassies.

In the opening, a cloaked colossus crosses the late-night streets of London, disappearing in shadows whenever passing locals might spy him. Peeking into a large orphanage, he’s seen by little Sophie, slips his huge hand in the window and snatches her up, carrying her across pastoral landscapes to Giant Country before she can report him.

Back in his cave, she worries that she’s about to become his breakfast, and is relieved to learn that he’s a vegan gentleman, wiser than his gobbledygook grammar implies — a Big Friendly Giant indeed. Each treats the other with sympathy, and they form an odd friendship, like a youngster and grandparent conspiring against a tribe of powerful, controlling, parent-sized nasties.

The live action performance by newcomer Ruby Barnhill as the girl, and Mark Rylance’s work voicing and acting the title role through a computer lens, are charming. In his first directing gig for Disney, Spielberg gives Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book a polished corporate gloss. Combining motion-capture performance and miraculous computer-generated visuals, the machinations are flawless. There is not a shining shaft of sunlight or a green blade of grass that hasn’t been beautified.

Yet to me, it feels overdone, too literal and not abstract enough to frame this fantasy. Where Dahl’s book had dozens of wonderfully wobbly illustrations by Quentin Blake, his caricatured, cartoonish flair has been imitated, digitally erased and excessively Botoxed. When you spend time thinking about how lovely the images are rather than following the story, the film is missing something.

The screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison (who wrote “The Black Stallion” and “E.T.”) minimizes the book’s moments of Brothers Grimm darkness, another form of Disney niceness that I wish they’d avoided. Dahl’s tales are often painfully funny, with a kind of fierce satire, macabre comedy and ironic detachment that help little readers grasp the world’s complicated realities.

There’s a passage in the novel where the BFG explains to Sophie why giants would much rather cannibalize Turkish folk than Greeks that is a riot of politically incorrect hilarity. Removing that moment and more reduces the story’s wry tone. Fans of the original will be happy to learn that several scenes of “whizpopping,” where characters expel rocket-fuel levels of gas, made the final cut. In Disneyland, nothing beyond genteel naughtiness is allowed.

It all adds up to fine family fare, and surely fun-packed excitement for kids. But it left me feeling that Spielberg at this point in his life and career is better at thoughtful, history-based adult material.

Seeing him produce such a trifle is similar to watching a larger-than-life conductor like Leonard Bernstein wave his baton through “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” He does it with precision, not passion.

“The BFG” isn’t Spielberg’s highest common denominator. It isn’t even Dahl’s. His spiky worldview is much better served in deliciously wicked versions like Mel Stuart’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Nicolas Roeg’s “The Witches” and Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” “The BFG” could have been a whiz-bang, but it’s mostly whizpopping.

Categories: Entertainment

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