Late one night ten-year-old orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is awoken by the startling sight of a Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) gallumping around London. The BFG brings Sophie home with him to Giant Country. As Sophie's fears melt away their friendship grows. She marvels at his amazing job collecting dreams for children and grownups around the world but also learns there are far nastier giants lurking about. When Sophie realizes the bad giants intend to eat as many human children as they can catch she convinces the BFG to hatch a desperate plan to alert the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton).
A reunion for Steven Spielberg with sadly the now-late Melissa Matheson, screenwriter of E.T - The Extraterrestrial (1982), on an adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's book for the Walt Disney studio (by way of Walden Media), The BFG had all the ingredients for a sure-fire hit. Yet the result was one of the more curious box-office failures of 2016. Evidently the filmmakers over-estimated the familiarity and affection for the source material among modern viewers as the film had a hostile reception at Cannes, bombed at the American box-office and, to add insult to injury, was nonsensically slandered for perceived pedophilic undertones. In truth the original book, while lovely, does not boast one of Dahl's stronger plots. Matheson's screenplay wisely retains the author's love of verbal tomfoolery but also the episodic narrative. As a consequence the film takes awhile to reach the meat of the story. Too often things grind to a halt as if ready to collapse under the weight of its own whimsy. Those not already in love with the source material are unlikely to be converted.
In some ways The BFG plays like a throwback to an older style of family filmmaking before Steven Spielberg revolutionized the form. The secret behind the great Spielberg family films lies in his uncanny ability to invest his audience in each visceral or emotional beat of a story. Throughout The BFG however characters constantly talk at the viewer rather than allow us to share their feelings. Consequently viewers are liable to lose patience with the wayward plot despite Spielberg conjuring ample moments of visual wonder (the dream-catching sequence is especially charming) along with suspenseful, touching or endearingly silly episodes. Even so whether you are a Spielberg fan, a Dahl fan or even a Disney/Walden Media fan, The BFG has plenty to offer. From the moment Big Ben chimes midnight over a storybook London, Spielberg reveals his mastery of visual storytelling. The build-up is delightfully mysterious, if reminiscent of Hook (1991), and the ensuing antics yield moments of vintage Spielbergian charm.
Roald Dahl wrote The BFG in part as a love letter to his then-young granddaughter: future supermodel Sophie Dahl. Echoing their real-life affection here the relationship between the lovably befuddled old giant and likable smarty-pants Sophie is both well-drawn and beguiling. Mark Rylance remains one of the world's most gifted actors. He embodies the title role with near-effortless ease but is almost outshone by bright-eyed, bouncy newcomer Ruby Barnhill. A rare female lead in a Spielberg movie, the brassy young Northerner is a welcome change from the usual stage-school tykes, and a charming presence. Meanwhile most of the laughs arise courtesy of the bigger, nastier giants portrayed by a motley crew of character actors led by gifted comedians Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords fame, and Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader. The villains come across like tanked-up lager louts on a Friday night binge. They are great fun but the film does not make them a very active threat. Meanwhile the scenes with Penelope Wilton as the Queen are a trifle flat and awkward, as if Spielberg were uncertain how to stage them. Nonetheless he does a solid job dealing with the story's darker undercurrents including child loss, guilt and characters confronting past failures in their search for redemption. Whether you think that sits uncomfortably alongside one of the most epic fart gags in cinema history really comes down to personal taste.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.