Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel bears many of the hallmarks of the director’s later-day lighter work: all childlike wonder and visual splendour, little in the way of content or substance. There are plenty of nice touches across The BFG, but it adds up to very little. Mostly this is to do with Spielberg’s long-standing faults as a director, but also because as he’s grown older he’s also grown more childlike, less able to mix light and dark together. He was never particularly good at light and shade in the first place, but it feels much like a trait that has almost entirely left him these days.
The joys of the film are rather simple. For anyone who grew up reading Roald Dahl’s books, the illustrations of his regular collaborator Quentin Blake were just as important as the words chosen by Dahl; one of the greatest pleasures of watching The BFG is seeing those drawings come to life— Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg’s regular cinematographer since Schindler’s List, does another fantastic job here—as well as hearing the wonderful, absurdist warp-English that Dahl created for the book being spoken, particularly given Mark Rylance’s charming performance as the titular character. Ruby Barnhill, who plays Sophie, the orphaned girl kidnapped after spotting the Big Friend Giant in dead-of-night London, is also a fantastic foil for Rylance, an energetic, curious presence on the camera, despite the fact that she’s acting alongside a CGI construction.
Spielberg evidently took his time luxuriating in recreating the fantasy world of the novel, and he clearly takes great pleasure in showing the audience around this world. Indeed, the first half of the film, where Spielberg gently ambles around Giant Country is easily the most entertaining, even if he can’t seem to decide exactly how big the BFG is compared to the rest of the world.
It’s this latter section of the film, where plot constructions are required to happen, which becomes quite a drag. Spielberg skimps on the darker aspects of the book—and in the process misses out on the very quality that makes Dahl’s work so enticing for children, that unique mixture of wonder and fear, a quality borne out by the better adaptations of his work as in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—but there is hardly an aspect of danger or peril to the film. I realise there’s an element of ridiculousness in criticising a fantasy children’s film for having a preposterous plot, particularly as the same thing happens in the book, but the scenes in which Sophie and the BFG decide that only way to rid Giant Country of the big bad giants is to talk to the Queen feel quite rushed and ham-fisted, as if Spielberg could barely wait to get back to Giant Country.
At this stage of his career, Spielberg has the means to do whatever he wants. Last year’s excellent Bridge of Spies is a fantastic example of a master storyteller stretching out with an engaging story. The BFG is a more overtly commercial project (and a lesser one), and though it’s by no means awful, it’s still ultimately a light confection of a film which Spielberg brings towards his lazier tendencies—his moral simplicity and childlikeness especially—instead of the darker edge that so benefited the novel. A mediocre effort.