The BFG: Definitely not Spielberg’s best, but Rylance is a ‘Big Friendly Deal’ nonetheless

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By M.V. Moorhead

The title stands for “Big Friendly Giant,” and the title character is just that—a pleasant colossus (Mark Rylance) whose  job is deliver pleasant dreams. A young English orphan girl, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) ends up as his houseguest and friend.

“Big” is a relative term, as it turns out. The BFG’s neighbors in giant land are much bigger than he is, and the monstrous, thuggish brutes (led by Jemaine Clement) routinely bully him. They’re also much less friendly, especially to humans—in the grand tradition of giants, they’re eager to eat Englishmen-and-girls (and presumably any other nationality). The BFG won’t do this—he maintains a vegetarian diet mostly consisting of a revolting-looking produce item called a snozzcumber. He’s also fond of a carbonated beverage with downward-traveling bubbles that induce epic intestinal activity.

Steven Spielberg directed his adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s strange tales for children. The script is by the great Melissa Mathison, who passed on last year, and to whom the film is dedicated. Mathison wrote the scripts for such kid-movie classics as The Black Stallion (1979) and E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), as well as the underrated 1995 The Indian in the Cupboard. At her best, she was able tap into the subconscious power of such yarns. I never thought she got as much credit for, in particular, the success of E.T. as she should have; the best lines in that movie carry an almost Jungian tingle, without the slightest pretention.

Her swansong was another script for Spielberg with, curiously, another initialed title character who befriends a little kid. I wish I could say that the result was another classic, but I think this one falls a little short of their earlier achievement. Visually it has the feel of a throwback, to the sort of fantasy movies made in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

Some of these were by Spielberg himself, in the worst phase of his career—like 1991’s Hook, probably my least favorite Spielberg film—and some of them were by other filmmakers trying to imitate Spielberg and his command of the box office. Like Hook, The BFG is all painterly colors and delicate compositions of the sort that wins Caldecott Medals for book illustrators, and the music, by John Williams of course, has the same soaring, leaping manner that Williams seems able to muster in his sleep.

As for the story, it has the free-wheeling, sometimes slightly sinister absurdity that is the trademark of Dahl’s stories for kids, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The BFG goes in for a degree of kid-pleasing scatology, as well. The Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) samples the BFG’s favorite beverage, for instance, with predictably Chaucerian results.

But somehow the energy just isn’t there with this one. There’s something muted and melancholy to the atmosphere of The BFG that makes it feel heavy and slow and draggy in its first half. Things certainly pick up in the second half, when the more broadly comic stuff kicks in, but even this shift feels vaguely forced—the dream-logic of the goofy narrative doesn’t seem organic.

All that said, there’s a redemptive virtue to The BFG, and that’s Mark Rylance. Endowed via CGI with a long nose and enormous ears below his sloping forehead and swept-back white hair, this great actor, who justly won an Oscar last year for his turn in Bridge of Spies, dries any schmaltz out of the film with his quiet, matter-of-fact line readings. And his young costar Barnhill is impressive, too—she’s a cute kid, but you never see her being cute on purpose.

The BFG is rated PG and plays at Tempe Marketplace, Chandler Fashion 20, Arizona Mills and other multiplexes Valleywide.

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