Dazzling worlds, repugnant giants, and farting corgis: In Steven Spielberg’s The BFG—or “big friendly giant”—Roald Dahl’s 1982 classic is brought to life with supreme skill and impeccable faithfulness, from Runt’s oversized ears to his hilarious malapropisms (human beings are human “beans”). But for all its charm and imagination, the film’s nearly two-hour runtime is surprisingly spiritless—not boring, not underwhelming, just… tame. This is one of those classic examples of the book being better than the movie.
In The BFG, a young girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is snatched from a London orphanage after she spies a giant creeping through the night. At first, the giant—played with a beautiful tenderness by Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)—poses a vague threat to the inquisitive young girl, as she’s quickly whisked away to Giant Country. At first, Sophie believes she’s been kidnapped to become the BFG’s dinner. But we soon learn the gentle giant exclusively subsides on a diet consisting of disgusting snozzcumbers (a type of slimy vegetable), something he does as a matter of principal.
When Sophie realizes his initial tough demeanor is just an act, the giant is revealed to be a gentle soul whose kindly countenance is so endearing it’s almost too much. He’s like the world’s nicest grandpa—just, you know, a giant. After some exposition—the BFG is a dream collector, you know, which is why he was in London to begin with—the two form an unshakable bond that serves as the movie’s foundation. Unfortunately, the stakes never really get higher than that. Spielberg is happy to let young audiences get lost in Giant Country’s bizarre, visually stunning world.
That world, to the dismay of the BFG, is also inhabited by nine other rambunctious giants, whose temperaments and appetites contrast the honorable morals of the title character. There’s The Bonecruncher, The Bloodbottler, The Meatdripper, The Gizzardgulper, etc. The worst of them all is The Fleshlumpeater (played by Jemaine Clement), who is more like a large toddler than frightening monster. Here, Spielberg merely scratches the surface of what’s presented in Dahl’s book. The giants aren’t nearly as horrible as their names suggest—an unfortunate side effect of the movie’s notable restraint.
Spielberg is no stranger to the world of adolescent cinema, having directed E.T. (coincidentally released the same year Dahl’s The BFG was published), and he displays an uncanny level of expertise throughout. However, there’s a surprising lack of drama or narrative; visually, it’s a phenomenal technical exercise, but the movie’s insistence on sticking so closely to the source material—and leaving some of the more ghoulish details out—ultimately detracts from the experience.
The point, really, is for audiences to sit back and admire the wondrous, wild world of Giant Country, which is rife with mystery and whimsy. Thanks to the help of cinematographer—and longtime Spielberg collaborator—Janusz Kaminski, The BFG is endlessly beautiful and magical, highlighted by a particularly gorgeous sequence that sees Sophie and the friendly giant cross over into dreamland. Here, the giant spends his time corralling dreams, which are physically represented by flickering balls of colorful light. Metaphorically, they appear to embody Spielberg’s dream-like career as a longtime film aficionado.
The digital effects used to render the giant are astounding. Through facial expressions and inflection of tone, Rylance’s performance capture displays a complex level of emotion, one of loneliness and grief, happiness and warmth. Despite his scraggly gray hair and oversized ears, Rylance’s presence is soulful and lovable, made even more charming by the unorthodox parlance from Dahl’s book. “Words is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life,” the BFG admits at one point.
Despite the lack of any real narrative conflict, The BFG still manages to be patently Spielbergian, full of wonder, longing, and deference for the art of filmmaking. It’s a meticulously crafted adventure that’s mostly aimed at kids and Dahl fanatics, but nonetheless impressive for its technical achievements.