Spielberg Does Roald Dahl in The BFG—But Where’s the Storytelling Magic? | Film Review | Indy Week
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Spielberg Does Roald Dahl in The BFG—But Where’s the Storytelling Magic? 

Heavy lidded: Nine-year-old Sophie befriends a giant in The BFG

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Heavy lidded: Nine-year-old Sophie befriends a giant in The BFG

Turns out the "F" in The BFG doesn't stand for what I thought it stood for, and it's not the latest Judd Apatow comedy. It's actually a family film from Steven Spielberg, based on the story by famed children's author Roald Dahl. You can imagine my surprise.

In fact, The BFG stands for The Big Friendly Giant, and it's a middling entry in the Spielberg canon. The film trades heavily in Spielbergian themes of childhood wonder and absentee parents, but it lacks the pure storytelling elegance of the director's best pictures.

The title character, voiced by British theater veteran Mark Rylance, is a giant all right—five stories tall, with enormous elephant ears and a satchel the size of a boxcar. But in a land of ferocious giants, he's a relative runt—and a pacifist weirdo to boot. He doesn't eat humans, which comes as a great relief to nine-year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), when the BFG plucks her out of an orphanage window. The BFG—he never gets another name—protects Sophie from the other predatory giants and takes her along on his adventures, which involve capturing dreams and keeping them safe.

Like all of Dahl's stories, the movie has an agreeable kid's-eye view and a surreal logic. The title character, as interpreted by Spielberg, Rylance, and Disney's digital artisans, is a wonderful cinematic creation. Using state-of-the-art technology, the movie combines live-action filmmaking with impossibly detailed animation. That's the movie's prime selling point: It is a genuinely beautiful thing to behold. Rylance also does an interesting thing with the BFG's dialogue of spitzwiggled and slogroggled malapropisms. Rather than demonstrate his verbal dexterity with spitfire readings, he slows ... everything ... down.

It's a bold choice that affects the pacing. Spielberg goes with the molasses flow for the first half of the film, which unfolds in a languid dreamland. But then everything accelerates in the second half, which shifts to 1980s London and incorporates helicopters, British special forces, and a Ronald Reagan joke. It's a conspicuously jarring shift in pacing and tone, and not for the better.

But the real trouble with The BFG, for grown-ups, anyway, is that there's no subtext, no tension, no layers. Nothing is at stake. That might not be so bad for a kids movie, except that the screenplay was written by the late Melissa Mathison, who last collaborated with Spielberg on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. That movie has so much at stake that it still makes me cry every time. I guess I was hoping for something similar. No such luck.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Rocky Roald"

  • The famed children’s author’s Big Friendly Giant comes to life on the big screen on Friday, July 1.

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