Let’s say for the sake of argument that giants really exist. That they galumph around London, ’round about the witching hour, plucking kids from orphanage windows as a late-night snack. That one among them has misgivings about all this “cannybullism” and might actually make a pretty good friend, if given the chance. Wouldn’t you like to know about it? That’s the beauty of Roald Dahl’s “The BFG,” as brought to life by recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance: You believe. No matter how fantastical the tale (and it gets pretty out-there at points), this splendid Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation makes it possible for audiences of all ages to wrap their heads around one of the unlikeliest friendships in cinema history, resulting in the sort of instant family classic “human beans” once relied upon Disney to deliver.
Dahl’s widely read and nearly universally revered novel began its journey to becoming a Spielberg movie some 25 years ago, at roughly the same time the director released one of his few duds, the cacophony that was 1991’s garish Peter Pan rehash, “Hook.” That film served up more bad ideas than good, but among its takeaway lessons was the notion that magic only works so long as children believe, and here we see the principle put into practice. Though waiting more than a couple of decades meant losing out on the idea of casting Robin Williams as the eponymous “Big Friendly Giant” (a choice that would have altered the film’s chemistry entirely), it’s just as well that Spielberg waited, for technology has finally caught up to the project’s ambition, allowing Rylance to credibly become a 24-foot-tall “runt” — the smallest (by far) in a race of performance-capture giants.
“The BFG” is gonna be huge. That much practically goes without saying: With Spielberg at the helm, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” screenwriter Melissa Mathison at the typewriter (though she died last November) and Dahl’s wonderful imagination — and vocabulary — at the fore, the film has ginormous box office potential. Still, without any bona-fide movie stars or franchise characters to drive worldwide audiences’ desire to see it, “The BFG” won’t have an easy time getting anywhere near the 20 highest-grossing films of all time (a list where Spielberg presently holds last place, with “Jurassic Park”).
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Fortunately, “The BFG” bears far more in common with “E.T.” than “Hook,” representing yet another opportunity for a misunderstood young person — in this case, parentless 10-year-old Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), who’s whisked from her orphanage window and spirited off to Giant Country — to connect with a creature whom her fellow human beings simply wouldn’t understand. For a certain generation, “E.T.” will always stand as the ultimate children’s movie, and while it certainly belongs in the pantheon, there has always been something deeply unsettling about the way the story veered from an intergalactic bonding opportunity to a panicky fable about how humans inevitably ruin everything (a flaw that subbing walkie-talkies for guns simply couldn’t fix).
Here, it’s the nine other giants — a nasty, irritable lot, easily twice the BFG’s size, with names like Fleshlumpeater, Bonecruncher and Meatdripper, and with teeth the size of tombstones — who pose a threat, gumbling at the idea of fraternizing with their food. (Whether the BFG has adopted Sophie as his pet or vice versa is a matter open to debate, though either way, it’s a charming idea for kids.) The BFG may have adopted a more enlightened diet, subsisting entirely on a stinky vegetable called Snozzcumbers that make lima beans sound downright delicious, but the rest still prefer a nice human delicacy. And just as sensitive as the BFG’s big ears are to sounds, so too is the mammoth schnozz of giant leader Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) to the odors of a potential human treat.
But Sophie isn’t easily intimidated, and fortunately, her courage is infectious in what might otherwise have been a film far too frightening for anyone Sophie’s age or younger. The BFG hadn’t exactly planned what to do with Sophie after snatching her from the orphanage, although anticipating the sort of reaction that befell E.T. (where frightened humans might capture him and put him in a zoo), it’s clear that he can’t leave her to go spilling about the existence of giants on “the tellytelly bunkum box and the radio squeaker.” Spielberg withholds a proper introduction till the pair get to Giant Country, but endears us to the character straightaway by revealing the conspicuous creature’s ability to hide in plain sight, as the BFG uses his best nighttime ninja moves to evade detection in London.
While the other giants have been designed largely from scratch (and as such, look somewhat more convincing to the eye), with the BFG, there’s an undeniably resemblance to Rylance. If anything, his features have merely been distorted to suit his new dimensions: as tall as a soccer goal is wide, with hands the size of grocery pallets, huge elephant-scale ears and a nose that would be right at home on Mount Rushmore. As appealingly sensitive as Rylance’s features may be, this funhouse-mirror reconfiguration takes some adjustment on our part, throwing off some of the forced-perspective gags in the early getting-to-know-you scenes back at his cave — which looks not altogether different from certain Hobbit sets imagined by his “The Adventures of Tintin” collaborator Peter Jackson.
Jackson also introduced Spielberg to the technology that made “The BFG” possible, and it’s thanks to Joe Letteri and the WETA performance capture team that Rylance — a character actor whose impact often relies on his ability to under-play any given role — succeeds in imbuing his digital avatar with subtlety and nuance (the total opposite of what Williams likely would have brought to the part). With no offense intended to mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis, it’s exciting to see someone else driving one of these virtual performances, although without Williams in the role, there’s no telling how many laughs were lost along the way.
What humor “The BFG” does offer derives almost directly from Dahl’s novel, most of it owing to the giant’s “squiggly” way of speaking in a dialect known as “gobblefunk.” Meanwhile, Mathison’s script excels more at deepening the connection between Sophie and the BFG than at cracking jokes along the way. If anything, she seems to be toning down some of Dahl’s more outrageous gags, including a scene in which Buckingham Palace erupts in a round of “whizzpoppers” (one can only imagine how Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers might have taken this flatulent set piece in another direction). But she has also invented the film’s single best scene, elaborating on the fact that the BFG tries to compensate for the other giants’ human-gobbling antics by blowing pleasant dreams through the windows of sleeping children.
At Sophie’s insistence, the BFG takes the girl along on a dream-gathering expedition, hopping through a magical pool to Dream Country, an upside-down world where “phizzwizards” — literally, the stuff that dreams are made of — circle the branches of a giant tree like Apple’s mesmerizing “Flurry” screensaver. Together, girl and giant chase these phosphorescent blurs around like so many elusive butterflies. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a downright hypnotic sequence, giving longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams the richest moment to heighten via a fully orchestral score that manages to enchant without relying so heavily as usual on a simple recurring musical theme.
Those who know Dahl’s book understand how vital dreams are to resolving the story’s giant-human détente, and this hypnotic “dream sequence” — alongside a couple other scenes set in the BFG’s dream-mixing workshop — makes Sophie’s fanciful solution feel nearly as plausible as the idea that she’s befriended the planet’s only benevolent giant. The finale, which brings the BFG face-to-face with the Queen of England, finds Spielberg stepping out of his comfort zone into the realm of farce, and though adults will find this section to be royally silly, it’s a vast improvement on similar scenes in “Minions” and “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties.”
These are hardly the comparisons Spielberg might be aiming for with what is clearly designed to be a late-career classic, though enlisting the Queen’s assistance is about as far as one can get from the problematic last act of “E.T.” — which is not to say that watching Her Majesty rip “whizzpoppers” is necessarily a better solution. By this point in their collaboration, Spielberg and d.p. Janusz Kaminski have arrived at lighting and framing their footage in such a way that it feels downright authoritative, as if no better vantage could be had on the moment in question. Here, that quality allows Barnhill (who looks like a less-precious version of “Matilda” star Mara Wilson) and the virtual Rylance to convincingly coexist, especially on the gorgeous emerald-green steppes of Giant Country, where Spielberg invites us to believe our eyes.