Whimsy and wonder save “The BFG” from over-sentimentality

Charles Liu

Amid all the destruction and grit of modern blockbusters, it is nice to see a fairy tale that embraces joy and imagination. Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” is a nice, cozy breather from the superhero punchouts and the alien invasions of today, even if it is an uneven ride.

Spielberg is yet to be matched in his capabilities as a fantasy storyteller. He has a good eye that captures the wonder of the outlandish and the enormous, which makes him well-suited to bring children’s stories like Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” to life.

“BFG” stands for the Big Friendly Giant, a titanic well-doer who catches dreams and then blows them into the minds of sleeping folk in London. One night, the giant (Mark Rylance) whisks away Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan girl who sees him slinking around the streets. After all, the BFG wouldn’t want a child spilling the beans about giants to people who might harm him.

The BFG takes Sophie to his cottage in Giant Country, where meaner, child-eating giants such as the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and the Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) bully the BFG and toss him around like ragdoll. While keeping Sophie hidden, the BFG acquaints her with his cozy giant cabin, his rustic workshop and his prized collection of dreams.

Spielberg and late “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Mathison invite us into the BFG’s whimsical world, committing entirely to the weirdness of Dahl’s novel and making it feel real. There’s delight to be found in the BFG’s fondness for a fizzy drink called “frobscottle,” which leads to explosive farts, and in his devotion to Sophie.

“The BFG” owes a lot of its success to Rylance, whose performance is gentle-hearted and sweet. He brings the BFG’s peculiar way of speaking to life, spouting words like “snozzcumber” and “delumptious” with a child-like affection for them. The BFG’s look may be a caricature of Rylance, but his expressive mouth and eyes recognizably belong to the thespian. This allows Rylance’s motion capture work to shine through along with his vocal acting.

Newcomer Barnhill holds her own with Rylance, but Sophie is hardly an interesting or textured character. She’s primarily a vessel for the audience, the anchor for our experiences in Giant Country.

Once “The BFG” has transported us into its strange world, it unfortunately finds little else to do. The thin narrative becomes a repetitive exercise in spectacle without drama. Even when Sophie and the BFG find themselves at odds with the other giants, there’s little edge or a sense of danger, and John Williams’ fragile score does little to create these suspenseful feelings as the film approaches its most dramatic scenes.  

Spielberg at once demonstrates both his best and worst tendencies as a filmmaker in “The BFG.” He capably immerses viewers in a strange new world, but at the same time he lets the movie’s sentimentality get away from him. Everything about the film is so soft and tender that the moments when its heart beats strongest are not as impactful, and the moments when it tiptoes into dark territory are hardly frightening at all. This makes it easy for "The BFG" to get boring for adults, but youngsters may still be enthralled by the larger-than-life special effects.

“The BFG” is one of Spielberg’s lesser efforts, but keep in mind that a middling product from one of Hollywood’s greats is still a decent film. For all of its flaws, “The BFG” is a meaningful story with visual and human beauty. Plus, it ends on a delicate, profound note with one of the most touching final shots a movie can have.  

  • “The BFG”
  • Running Time: 117 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Score: 3/5 stars