There are great lashings of wonderment at the start of The BFG, Steven Spielberg’s bright big dream machine of an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s fanciful novel. The nighttime London here offers rain-covered cobblestones, curving streets perfect for hiding things that boggle the imagination, and an air of ancient anything-goes mystery. An orphanage houses Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who confides to viewers in a voiceover that it is at the witching hour, “when people go missing”. Something big is coming to change Sophie’s world, and in a deft interplay of shadow and hint, Spielberg shows again his organic genius for the long reveal.
If The BFG had kept that spell as tightly spun throughout the two hours that follow, it could have been a modern classic. It doesn’t do that, but it begins as so many stories about orphans do, subjecting Sophie to some difficulties. Hers involve being snatched out of her bedroom by a building-sized giant who flits through the sleeping city with surprising deftness, slipping into shadows and curling his cloak around him like a conjurer.
Soon enough, Sophie is spirited away to the giant’s home country, a misty, Scottish highlands-looking stretch where children disappear and nobody would be the wiser. By this point, however, it’s clear that she doesn’t have much to fear. “BFG”, after all, stands for Big Friendly Giant.
Played with alliterative grace and humor by Mark Rylance, the BFG is a galumphing, gentle soul. One of Dahl’s more fantastic creations, he’s both odd and without a source in traditional folklore, making him all the more memorable. The well-crafted animation is integrated with the live-action non-giant characters far more seamlessly than in Spielberg’s clunkier The Adventures of Tintin. The BFG renders the BFG’s pointed face and inquisitive eyes as utterly Rylance’s, though warmer and without that canny lupine aspect that shows so brightly in his stage work. His ears are great flapping things, meant to hear “all the secret whisperings of the world”. The long trumpet-looking device in his hands and the fantastic grotto under his cozily rattletrap cottage filled with glass jars complete the spell: this giant is a literal dream catcher.
He’s also a fantastic and self-conscious mangler of the Queen’s English. The BFG worries to Sophie that he’s saying things “a little squiggly”. But his looping word-piles, like “gobblefunk” and “murderfull” are linguistic treats in and of themselves. After its mysterious opening and magnificent escape to the land of giants, Spielberg’s movie settles in quite comfortably in the BFG’s home, as the host delights in having somebody to talk to and Sophie realizes that she finally has a friend, ally, and protector. The relaxed pace may be trying for some younger viewers, though they’ll surely be happy enough once the BFG pulls out his bottle of a green “whizpopper” drink: it’s carbonated in reverse, with loud and colorful gastric results.
Some dangers follow this respite, brought by the much bigger and cannibalistic giants who like to bang into BFG’s homey little cottage and bully him when they’re not sniffing around for food. But the screenplay, by the late Melissa Mathison (who also wrote E.T. for Spielberg), is hinged far less on the orphan-in-peril plot than it is on the relationship between Sophie and the BFG. It’s their evolving bond, and the perilous threat of having it severed, that gooses the film along when it threatens to get lost in its own dream-plucking.
Like so many children, Sophie is obsessed with fairness. Unlike most children, she fights like a Marine to make sure it’s applied evenly to everybody, not just herself. A junior insomniac, she’s introduced as she patrols the orphanage at night, reading the mail, avoiding the matron’s prying eyes, and telling off the drunken stumblebums who are bashing loudly about in the street below. Her vigilance leads directly to her first encounter with the BFG, who only takes her captive after she spots him in the city (and he regrets the inconvenience).
Once ensconced at his place, Sophie is soon lecturing him on standing up to the other giants. They’re a loutish lot with all the charm of Immortan Joe’s War Boys, who keep barging in, bullying the comparatively tiny BFG, and threatening to eat that little “human bean” they can smell but not see.
The BFG never tries to give its villains snappy dialogue or anti-hero cred. These giants are brawny, brawling bums who represent everything crude about the world. They are the opposite of Sophie’s ideas-fizzing mind and the BFG’s woozy circumlocution. The giants have no chance once Sophie and the BFG enlist the help of the Queen. Played by the razor-sharp Penelope Wilton as a slightly stern but exceptionally dependable grandmother who can snap into commander-in-chief mode without rattling the china, the Queen is extraordinarily efficient, but she still manages to stop for tea and make conversation.
When it comes to the small number of Spielberg’s films made not just about but for children, The BFG isn’t quite the equal of E.T.. It relies far too much on Rylance’s winning, compassionate mien, and the beautiful yet understated animation (no desperate Tim Burton overkill here). But Spielberg’s fresh approach and Mathison’s ability to plug straight into those primal wants (security, friendship, protection, and a world with at least a little bit of enchantment) make The BFG a modestly magical film for a grimly realistic age.