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Review: 'The BFG' is visual giant, but emotionally lacking

Mark Rylance plays the Big Friendly Giant and Ruby Barnhill is the orphan he bonds with in The BFG.
Mark Rylance plays the Big Friendly Giant and Ruby Barnhill is the orphan he bonds with in The BFG.
Published Jun. 28, 2016

Steven Spielberg's second childhood in movies is proceeding like many do in real life. Serious stuff keeps getting in the way of acting (or directing) like a kid again. It's likely you'll appear old-fashioned when you do.

The BFG is one of Spielberg's rare excursions in childish whimsy these days, as sweet and big-hearted as you'd expect from the maker of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Technically speaking, it's a motion capture marvel, with Academy Award winner Mark Rylance in line for another nomination, in the title role of Big Friendly Giant.

Based on Roald Dahl's children's book, the screenplay by the late Melissa Matheson — who also wrote E.T. — relishes the author's wacky way with Gobblefunk, a silly word salad spoken by BFG. Rylance is a constant delight, chattering and chuckling decipherable nonsense like "vegeterribles" and spreading news on "the bunkum box and radio squealer."

While mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis hides behind the process, Rylance is unmistakably the digitized face of BFG. His eyes radiate their usual soft kindness, the only part of his physique that isn't digitally exaggerated. Elephantine ears, spindly appendages and buzzard neck are faked; the actor is genuine.

This is, however, an easier movie to admire for its technical prowess than embrace with emotional zeal. Spielberg doesn't pull heart strings as much as push the right buttons, dutiful to an undercooked story. The BFG begins like a classic fairy tale and ends with helicopters and fart jokes, a tonal dissonance that is Dahl's fault, not the film's.

Like E.T., this is a tale of a child bonding with a humane creature. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, serviceably cute) lives in a London orphanage, waking at 3 a.m. nightly when lonely makes sense. One night she spies BFG prowling the streets, her gasps drawing his attention. He plucks Sophie from bed, carrying her to Giant Land and his lair.

Much of the film's first hour occurs in these Hobbit-ish surroundings, as Sophie learns BFG is the runt of a clan of giants led by Fleshlumpeater (voice of Jemaine Clement). The others are "cannybulls" eating "human beans," and Fleshlumpeater's keen nose tells him one is near. Protecting his new, only friend is now BFG's mission.

Complicating matters is BFG's nightly task, collecting and distributing nice dreams to London's children with ninja stealth. Sophie tags along against the giant's better judgement, exposing her to Fleshlumpeater's crew. Spielberg adds a fresh approach to dream-sequence technique with little more than silhouettes and a smile, a rare ingenious touch in this movie.

Then comes the point when Dahl may have simply grown tired of the story, opting for an abrupt change in direction to Buckingham Palace and Queen Victoria (Penelope Wilton) calling out the army. It feels so at odds with everything preceding that intermittent delights like BFG's gigantic royal breakfast don't impress as much, when the queen and her Corgis begin breaking wind, thanks to BFG's homemade fizzy pop. Is this really the same movie we walked into?

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No, because Spielberg isn't the same filmmaker today. He deals much more often in fact than fantasy, and imagination muscle has only so much memory. They're flexed here in Rylance's appearance and not much else. The BFG is like hearing grandpa tell an okay bedtime story, punctuated with an underarm fart.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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