It’s not hard to see what Steven Spielberg sees in the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance). The BFG lives in Giant Country, a land littered with the junk of children’s amusements and blockbuster spectacle—a Ferris wheel here, a shipwreck there. He’s many stories tall, and surrounded by bigger, louder, burlier beasts who profit off of “human beans” by simply devouring them. While they hunt for people, the BFG spends his days questing for dreams: carefully bottling and labeling them, and toting them home for future use. At night, he goes to London, where he listens to the heartbeats of children and uses a magical trumpet to send dreams straight into our unconscious. The BFG is, like Spielberg, the chief caretaker of the dream factory, a benevolent force surrounded by more greedy, noxious goons.
Spielberg is no stranger to nightmares and dystopia, but his faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic finds the director playing the role of pure enchanter. The film’s plot is so thin it could qualify as a hang-out narrative, and its big themes of trust and the importance of dreams are broad to the point of vagueness. But however CGI-abetted The BFG’s low-stakes wonders are, they nonetheless feel like an implicit rebuke to a blockbuster ecosystem guided by the sequel prerogative. Sometimes a pleasant dream is more than enough.
This one begins with some familiar tensions. The young orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, a dead ringer for the ’90s child star Mara Wilson) tip-toes through her boarding house late at night, simultaneously fending off nightmares and taking care of the responsibilities of other adults, like locking doors and shouting at the local drunks to go to bed. Shortly after, the subsequent silence and dazzling moonlight of the “witching hour” is quickly disrupted by the nightly peregrinations of the BFG. She spots him from a balcony, then he scoops her up in a larval bedsheet and whisks her away to Giant Country. Spielberg and his stalwart cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, film her abduction in a combination of grand landscape views and obscured POV shots from within Sophie’s cocoon. The girl’s fright is counterbalanced by the awesomeness of her captor, gracefully and grandly galumphing across plains and rivers to the twinkly swell of a John Williams score.
Here and elsewhere, the film urges calm in the face of new, potentially dangerous circumstances. Sophie’s anxieties are hastily quelled by the BFG’s reedy tenor, wonky syntax, and harmless diet of snozzberries (a sort of pungent, mutant cucumber). “I cannot be right all the time,” he says after Sophie questions one of his malapropisms. “Often I is left instead of right.” Rylance’s utter lack of guile, along with some striking photorealistic touches, help Spielberg circumvent the uncanny valley effect: His face is creased with worry and his neck hairs glisten with changes in the light, but his fawning eyes are moist, massive wells of empathy. Using some of the same structural absences that made E.T. such a poignant representation of a broken nuclear family, the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison doesn’t delve much into Sophie’s orphanhood or the BFG’s troubled past. It’s readily apparent that they feed off one another’s unlikely courage.
Full of such quietly inventive visual magic, it’s perfectly content to simply revel in the stuff dreams are made of.
They’ll need that bolstered courage, sort of, to fend off the BFG’s cannibalistic, leather- and pelt-clad neighborhood bullies. In snaking long shots, ginormous grunts with names like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) trace Sophie’s scent through the BFG’s cave and its annexed dream apothecary. Spielberg mines a little tension from these beasts and their snorting path of destruction, but their threat is a mere excuse for the film’s extended, oddball comedic set piece: a breakfast with the Queen (Penelope Wilton) at Buckingham Palace, where Sophie calls for an attack on the cannibal heathens as the BFG, perched on a stool that’s been placed atop a grand piano, scarfs dozens of eggs. (The scene is also fizzy with fart jokes, induced by a beverage called frobscottle.)
It is, at times, tempting to quibble with The BFG’s utter mildness. How is it that a little girl convinces the Queen of England to dine with a 24-foot tall foreigner? Why are we suddenly rooting for military intervention in a children’s film? And if this friendly giant is so keen on spreading good dreams, why do nightmares exist? The relative flimsiness of Spielberg’s take on Dahl’s sneakily dark narratives prevents the film from taking emotional flight, but The BFG’s incessant visual wonders are a worthy substitute. Halfway through the film, Sophie and the BFG plunge into a brook and emerge, all dry, into the upside-down world full of the “phizzwizards” that become dreams. They drip off the leaves of a big tree and flutter about in vibrant, phosphorescent hues, and the BFG captures them with a dreamcatcher and stores them in a satchel. Spielberg’s film, full of such quietly inventive visual magic, is perfectly content to simply revel in the stuff dreams are made of.