2 1/2 out of 4 stars
“The BFG” is Steven Spielberg’s 31st commercial feature film, and alongside other legends who have made at least that many (Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks), he’s never delivered a bad movie. “Bad,” of course is a subjective word, but even the weakest movies in Spielberg’s canon (“1941,” “The Adventures of Tin-Tin,” the most recent “Indiana Jones” installment) are all still watchable. “The BFG” is another to add to that list. It’s not bad, but it’s also not something you need to rush out and see right now — unless you’re a generic 3-D junkie.
Based on the 1982 book of the same name by Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), it is also the second collaboration between Spielberg and “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who sadly passed away in 2015. Given that triumvirate of talent, “The BFG” should have been a hands-down classic, not a worthy footnote.
Dark by most children’s book standards, Dahl’s works were far ahead of their time, and even the best movie adaptations tend to gloss over or omit entirely parts filmmakers deem to be too intense for the target audience. That might have been warranted decades ago, but with the arrival of the “Harry Potter” franchise, the juvenile demographic has gotten used to dark and many actually revel in it.
The opening act is by far the best of the three with the filmmakers taking the most chances and delivering the best results. Strong-willed orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) has insomnia, is a voracious reader and is content being a loner type. She’s petrified about what happens every morning at 3 a.m. — when children are snatched from their beds by mysterious unidentified beings. From a balcony outside a group bedroom, Sophie sees the shadow of a giant roaming the streets who, upon seeing her, grabs her and sprints out of town through the clouds and into what looks to be a parallel universe version of England.
Initially (and understandably) shaken, the plucky Sophie gathers herself and starts peppering the giant (the barely recognizable, motion-captured Mark Rylance) whom she eventually addresses as BFG (Big Friendly Giant) with probing questions. This section might play out a tad too slow for some but the budding relationship between the child and the “alien” along with some very fancy CGI strongly mirrors “E.T.” in both tone and approach.
As did E.T., BFG speaks fractured English with frequent malapropisms and subsists on a diet of mutant cucumbers while imbibing a lime green cucumber-based spirit that results in frequent, high-energy flatulence. Even with a height of roughly five stories, the vegetarian BFG is diminutive compared to other (man-eating) giants living nearby who more resemble Cro-Magnon ogres than humans.
Lead by Lumpflesheater (Jemaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), this hygienically challenged gang of skyscraper thugs loves to mess with BFG, often tossing him about as if he were a football or stuffed animal. Rather than protest or fight back, BFG grudgingly goes along with the abuse, an attitude that perplexes and quickly angers Sophie. During a raid on BFG’s home, the larger giants catch a whiff of Sophie and make it their mission to find her.
The second act takes place mostly at night with Sophie and BFG near a magical pond where he harvests and bottles dreams for later distribution in the real world. Imagine a child with a net searching for fireflies on a late summer’s night. Another near capture of Sophie prompts the hatching of a plan between her and BFG to trap the ogres and remove them.
While the third act contains the most action, it also is the least satisfying. Employing direct-to-video-level sight gags and more flatulence-based humor, it never strays far from Dahl’s original text. For Dahl purists this will be good news, but it’s also inconsistent with the magical/humble tone of the rest of the film. Loopy, zany and crass were never Spielberg’s strong suits (which is a good thing) and this is one instance where deviating from what came before might have been worked out better.
For kids who revel in bodily function noises and empty action, “The BFG” will work well. It operates in a safe middle ground that is never too cerebral or too scary. At nearly two hours long, it will however test the patience of some youngsters who generally peter out at the 90 minute mark.
Lifelong Spielberg fans will take the movie in stride. He’s got five more works in various states of production (including a fifth “Indiana Jones”), and he seems to be heading back to more serious, adult-based fare. “The BFG” is dedicated to Mathison (also the ex-wife of Harrison Ford) and comes off as something Spielberg agreed to do more out of nostalgia and quasi-obligation than a forward-moving artistic statement. It’s not an embarrassment by any stretch but neither does it come anywhere close to being among Spielberg’s most inspired and respected works.