'The BFG': Cannes Review

A thematic but not creative match of 'E.T.'

Steven Spielberg dips into a deep bag of technological tricks to put humans and giants on the same screen in his adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic.

An uncanny thematic mirror to E.T. some 34 years later, Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison’s The BFG emerges as a conspicuously less captivating, magical and transporting experience than its classic forebear. Quite literally about the value and importance of dreams to the exclusion of almost anything else, this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s enduring classic (published, coincidentally, the same year E.T. came out) sees the director diving deep into a technological bag of tricks to mix giants and humans on the same cinematic stage.  Big commercial results loom for Disney’s major early July release, but the two-hour two-hander drags with too much dialogue during the first half and never truly achieves narrative lift-off.

Another addition to the helmer’s substantial shelf of heavily Anglophile works, The BFG, short for The Big Friendly Giant, explicitly enunciates its concerns as much as it dramatizes them; it is the self-cultivated profession of the solitary title character, played by the filmmaker’s new favorite actor, the brilliant stage dynamo Mark Rylance, to collect and store dreams in glowing bottles kept in his elaborate underground cave.

Dahl’s source material seems an almost too-perfect fit for the director in that it centers on a child, in this case Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), whose only solace in her orphanage-bound life is reading. Unlike in E.T., which was also written by the late Mathison, the obviousness of the new film’s concerns are not accompanied by other characters or interests, leaving everything out on the surface. This is a movie devoid of layers and subtext.

The simple plot has the BFG — a several stories-tall middle-aged bloke who is quite thin and has swept-back graying hair, a conspicuously large nose and nearly Dumbo-like ears — kidnapping little Sophie one night when she spots him in central London; this cannot be tolerated, as if word gets out among ordinary humans that giants exist, it will mean the end of them.

The big guy spirits the bespectacled, rational little girl off to his remote cave; fortunately for her, he turns out to be a loner among giants, a gentle, considerate soul prone to some original forms of speech. Far more importantly, he’s not a carnivore or a cannibal, as are his much larger fellow giants who roam the wilds nearby.

A fair amount of the would-be comedy involves the fearsome mountain dwellers, who look not to have descended far beyond Neanderthal status (and, curiously, are all males), being fooled by the BFG as they pick up the girl’s scent in the vicinity but can’t find her. Spielberg has opted to eliminate Dahl’s depiction of the lumbering big guys actually hunting down humans and eating them, thereby making them into relative buffoons; despite opportunities, the director has avoided anything remotely scary or even, frankly, surprising, which was certainly not the case in E.T.

The long scenes set in the BFG’s cave, which is outfitted to resemble the domain of a late 19th century academic or scientist, are heavily talky, made to seem moreso due to a clear decision to have Rylance deliver his lines slowly. A different performer, and certainly most comic ones, would have attacked Dahl’s goofy invented words — stuff like “slogroggled” and “splitzwiggled” and “fluckgungled” and so on — with rapid-fire relish.

Rylance, who has entered the most rarified realms of comedy onstage and can channel greats like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at will, takes things more slowly here, rolling some of the words around in his mouth and altogether trying to create a fully rounded character out of a children’s book invention. It’s a novel, admirable approach but, as so fully indulged by the director, it tends to weigh the enterprise down just when it needs more zip and momentum.

For her part, the brown-haired, brown-eyed Barnhill is direct and well-spoken, but also is as literal-minded as the film; she does her business but her personality doesn’t leap off the screen.

Eventually, things pick up a bit in the final act, which is mostly set in the Queen’s quarters at Buckingham Palace, where the plot devised by the BFG and Sophie to do in the bad giants must originate. Penelope Wilton’s performance as the monarch is defiantly not a Helen Mirren-like attempt to impersonate the actual Queen Elizabeth II, although a little joke is had in having her call the White House and ask Nancy to put Ronnie on (another detail connecting the film to the 1980s).

A climactic helicopter raid gives Spielberg a brief chance to exercise his action chops, but the sequence feels surprisingly perfunctory in the filmmaker’s overall scheme of things, not designed to create the usual thrills.

Rather, the movie represents the director in a more pensive, even philosophical vein, less interested in propulsive cinema and more reflective about what would seem to mean the most to him — dreams, and the ability to make them come true. This is what The BFG is about but, unfortunately, that is basically all it’s about, and by a considerable measure too explicitly and single-mindedly so.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting)
Distributor: Disney
Production: Kennedy Marshall Productions, Amblin Entertainment, Walden Media
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer
Executive producers: Kathleen Kennedy, John Madden, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Michael Siegel
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminsky
Production designers: Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams
Senior visual effects supervisor: Joe Letteri
Casting: Nina Gold

Rated PG, 115 minutes