Review: “The BFG”

2 out of 5 stars.

On paper, it seems like a match made in heaven: Steven Spielberg directing a film for the Walt Disney Studios for the first time, with a screenplay based on a Roald Dahl novel adapted by longtime Spielberg collaborator Melissa Mathison. Even reliable staples from previous Spielberg films — actor Mark Rylance and composer John Williams — hopped on board this film adapation of “The BFG” But what could have — and should have — been one of the best family films of the year ends up being unsatisfying for both adults and children.

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“The BFG” opens in a London orphanage on a girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill). Sophie has insomnia, so she is awake when a giant (Mark Rylance) appears at her window, captures her, and brings her to his home in Giant Country. He explains that he is called the BFG — an abbreviation for Big Friendly Giant — and that he doesn’t intend to eat her, but that since she has seen him he can’t let her go home. That doesn’t stop the other mean giants, led by the fearsome Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), from finding out about her and trying to hunt her for food. Ultimately, Sophie forms a plan with the BFG to get the British government involved to stop the giants from trying to kill her and bully the BFG for not being like them.

Visually, “The BFG” is nothing short of stunning. A colorful sequence where Sophie and the BFG travel to Dream Country to catch dreams is the film’s highlight, but Spielberg even makes the BFG’s slinking around London at night look magical and otherworldly. But outside of those couple of sequences, the film actually lacks the sense of wonder that accompanies many of Spielberg’s films. In fact, it often feels less like a Spielberg movie and more like a generic, big budget film intended to divert kids and families for a couple of hours, but not much more.

A lot of that has to do with the story. This film adaptation is less dark than the novel on which it is based, but it is still all over the place. Initially, much of the story’s humor derives from the nonsensical language and habits of the giants, later making an attempt at dry British humor when the setting shifts to Buckingham Palace, before finally resorting to potty jokes. It may be amusing for kids, but for the most part it comes off as immature, and clashes wildly with the rest of the story, which is otherwise quite serious, particularly when it comes to the BFG’s backstory.

The story also has trouble finding its focus among the characters. Sophie should be the one whose eyes the audience sees through, the one through which we relate to every fantastical thing that is happening onscreen, and while sometimes that is the case, for the most part the story favors the BFG. It’s hard to relate to a giant, no matter how great the wonderful Mark Rylance embodies him in a captivating motion-capture performance. The audience doesn’t even receive as much of Sophie’s backstory as the BFG’s. Is she unhappy at the orphanage? Is she longing to be adopted? Those are threads that could have been explored at least a bit further to help develop her character, but they aren’t.

“The BFG” does boast a delightful cast. Besides the aforementioned Rylance, Barnhill does a beautiful job playing Sophie, even if her chemistry with the BFG is oddly lacking (this is likely due more to the script than to the actors). Penelope Wilton nearly steals the show playing the Queen of England, Clement is a solid villain, and Rebecca Hall make an appearance as the Queen’s maid, who becomes a motherly figure to Sophie. But what should have been a heart-warming tale of friendship and family leaves the viewer feeling rather cold, resulting in “The BFG” being one of the most forgettable entries in Spielberg’s — and even the Walt Disney Studios — recent filmographies.

Runtime: 117 minutes. Rated PG.

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