Like its titular character, The BFG is, well, big. The effects impress. The scope is vast. The jokes are broad, the sentiment far from subtle, and the John Williams score especially Williams-esque. There are times when this works, and times when it doesn’t. But fittingly enough, the most affecting element of The BFG is a performance that’s far from over-the-top.
Oscar winner Mark Rylance is here to do his thing. While his big, friendly giant may not hit the highs that earned him all that hardware for Bridge of Spies, it’s no less impressive an achievement. Rylance’s performance-captured work here is almost illogically subtle, his face unrecognizable — CGI is a magical thing sometimes — but all of his skill just as apparent. Rylance is never less than excellent, walking right up to the line that divides the magical from the insufferable without ever stepping over.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole cannot say the same. Steven Spielberg’s latest, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book of same name, frequently jumps between wonderful and wearying. Yes, it often doles out the moments of magic that Spielberg does so well, but it just as often becomes so darned precious that even the wee filmgoers that make up the target audience will have a hard time not rolling their eyes. Imagine all the best parts of E.T. (written, like this film, by the late Melissa Mathison) and all the worst parts of Hook, and you have a pretty solid picture of what it’s like to spend two hours with The BFG. It’s a bit like the little girl from that famous Longfellow poem: when it is good, it is very good indeed, but when it is bad, it is horrid.
Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), a scrappy, smart orphan — is there any other kind of orphan? — spends her nights cleaning up after the woman who runs the orphanage and escaping into books beneath her blankets. But during the witching hour, she strays from her bed and spies a mysterious, shadowy figure through the window. Quicker than you can say “inciting incident,” a giant hand has popped into the opening and snatched Sophie away toward adventure. The giant (Rylance) is far from the monster Sophie imagines, however — instead, he’s a runt, a vegetarian, and a forger of dreams given to malapropisms. His fellow giants, however, sure do like to eat kids, and it’s Sophie’s determination to stop them that propels much of the action.
The Land of Giants! Sounds like Spielberg’s cup of tea, right? It is, in small doses. The director expertly plays with perspective and size, and nearly every moment spent in the BFG’s cave reveals new and rich details; for example, his bed is a ship, and his snores make the sails billow and rock him to sleep. Yet somehow, it’s in this fantastic location that the film falters. Barnhill’s charms are considerable, but she doesn’t have the kind of weight as a performer that allows an audience to feel that they, too, have been transported to somewhere otherworldly. Sophie may feel a sense of wonder. Those on the outside? Not so much.
It only gets worse when the pair journey to the hunting ground where the BFG traps dreams, a land one Etsy page away from being unbearably sweet. The only thing that saves the film from totally capsizing under the weight of all that preciousness is, unsurprisingly, Rylance. Sophie may marvel at the adorable little dreams, but for the BFG, this is just part of the job. It’s not wonder that propels him, but guilt and sadness, and in those moments it’s easy to forget that we’re seeing a computer-generated creation. That’s a hell of a performance.
But if the mysticism doesn’t land as it should, all of Sophie and the BFG’s adventures in the real world absolutely hit home. Spielberg and company have a great deal of fun playing with the giant’s movements, making him an incredibly graceful creature, rather than a galumphing, bone-crunching mess (like most of his fellows). The pair often hide in plain sight, and much of the film’s fun comes in these small, playful moments. It’s exactly the kind of fun you expect from Spielberg, and from Dahl for that matter. Both the film and the giant operate on rules entirely their own.
If that sounds good, just wait until you get to Buckingham Palace. Sophie’s plan requires the aid of the Queen (the vastly underrated Penelope Wilton, here to deploy her masterful deadpan with great frequency), and it’s this unlikely collision with history that brings the film to its highest highs. There’s a lack of restraint that imbues the film with the kind of joyful energy one always hopes to encounter in a film for children, but so rarely sees. The less said about these sequences, the better, but one detail must be acknowledged: somehow, some way, one of the world’s most acclaimed directors has pulled off the unlikely feat of landing the most enjoyable fart joke since Blazing Saddles.
The BFG is a stunning technical accomplishment, and for some, that’ll be reason enough to check it out. It’s also a perfectly charming movie for kids in an era that gives us one Finding Dory for every five Angry Birds Movies. But it’s hard to ignore the disparity between what works and what doesn’t. Spielberg still knows how to make something magical. He’s just best at it when he’s not trying so damn hard.