The BFG, based on the Roald Dahl story, takes place in England in the 80s. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is an orphan with insomnia, and she spends her nights wandering the halls of the orphanage. And late at night, she spots a giant outside her window, lurking in the streets of London. The giant sees her, too, and takes her with him to Giant Country, where she won't be able to tell others of his existence. As it turns out, this giant (played by Mark Rylance) is an outcast among his kind. He is the smallest among them, and the only one who doesn't eat humans. Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant become friends, and the young girl urges the gentle giant to stand up to his more violent brothers.
This film has charm to spare. Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg seem like a natural fit, with both artists having made their name on stories of brave, precocious little children taking on the unknown. And the film gets a lot out of that simple premise, extracting potent sentiment from the pretty simple idea that not everything lurking in the dark is to be feared, that perhaps we are made great by our willingness to step into the shadows. But the charm only goes so far, especially as the story stretches out towards a second hour.
Watching the movie, one comes to the realization that there isn’t actually a lot of story to tell. The movie idly explores the details of this world for much of its runtime, the characters not really pressed to do anything in particular. Sophie gets to know the BFG, and becomes charmed by his soft heart and unique way of speaking. We are brought into his world, where a ship is a bed and dreams can be caught and all manner of wonder can be found.
What the film doesn’t quite capture is the sense of the macabre present in Dahl’s story. It just softens the edges a little bit, making the violence more implied than explicit. Otherwise, the film is pretty faithful to the story. This is a good thing and a bad thing. Those already enamored with the original story will be glad to know that the movie doesn’t stray very far from the beloved tale. Those unfamiliar will find some of these elements a little questionable. The resolution to the story feels more than a bit strange. I don’t want to spoil things, but it involves an intervention through force that feels more than a little discomfiting.
Still, the charms are formidable. The film is best leading into the climax, in a lengthy sequence that places the BFG in an unfamiliar situation. The movie goes manic as it plays out an absurd situation that handily displays Spielberg’s affinity for melding the real with the unreal. Mark Rylance plays the BFG with incredible warmth. It shines through the motion capture performance, which can be a real feat. Ruby Barnhill makes for a terrific Sophie, and there are moments where the two are able to overcome the distance inherent in performances between real people and a visual effect.
The BFG is quite charming, but it could stand to be shorter. There just isn’t enough plot in this story to fully justify the nearly two hour runtime. At some point the magic just runs thin. The movie could have gotten to the third act a little quicker, where its most delightful sequence occurs, and the true charms of this story emerge. As a whole, The BFG isn’t a bad film at all, but it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Spielberg taking on Dahl.