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Family Movie Review: The BFG (PG)

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MPAA Rating: PG       Length: 117 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 8+. This film, adapted from Roald Dahl’s same-named children’s book, keeps the original plot mostly intact: There are some scary, human-eating giants that are said to be snatching people and children out of bed and eating them, although we don’t see that onscreen. There is a nightmare sequence where a young girl imagines being eaten; larger giants bully and physically abuse the titular BFG, destroying his home; some farting and burping jokes and a few gross-out sequences including slimy, nasty vegetables; and discussions of how the BFG does not have parents and his young friend Sophie is an orphan. There are some melancholy themes here that may go over younger children’s heads.

Steven Spielberg adapts Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’ with moments of memorable beauty and deeply felt sadness. But while visually impressive, the film lacks the certain quirkiness that made Dahl’s stories so unbelievably unique.

By Roxana Hadadi

Roald Dahl’s novels aren’t easily adaptable, and “The BFG” is an example of why.

His children’s books are such an unforgettable mix of eccentricity, glee, and loneliness that it’s an uphill battle to fully capture their complex essence in film format. To this mix arrives Steven Spielberg, with his live-action adaptation of “The BFG.”

It’s an often-stunning film that makes good use of 3D technology, with gorgeous scenes in Dream Country and moments that bring to mind Spielberg’s very similar “Hook.” But so much of Dahl’s weirdness feels smudged away here, and “The BFG” seems manufactured to live up to the positive-reinforcement and anti-bullying messaging of today’s children’s movies. With those tweaks, “The BFG” feels less like a product of Dahl’s mind and more of the Disney machine.

“The BFG” begins with the orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), wandering around her London orphanage at 3 a.m., what she calls with the “witching hour,” when she sees something: a huge hand, a huge man, and a huge pair of eyes staring at her. Spotted by the creature, Sophie is whisked away, taken from her bed and traveling over thousands of miles into the being’s lair. Who—or what—is it, with its long cloak, its strange trumpet-like instrument, and its cave full of books and glowing glass jars?

It is, of course, the titular BFG, or Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, of “Bridge of Spies”). He took Sophie because she saw him, but not because he wants to eat her—“This I never!” he exclaims in his peculiar speaking style and irregular, self-taught vocabulary. Instead, he wants to protect her from the other nine giants, who abuse the BFG for being a “runt” at only 20-something feet. Their leader and the BFG’s primary bully, Fleshlumpeater (voiced by Jemaine Clement, of “Don Verdean”), can tell something is up with the BFG, but doesn’t know what. One thing is clear, though: If Fleshlumpeater or any of the other giants learn about Sophie, they’ll eat her.

It’s up to the BFG to keep Sophie safe, but she defends him, too, encouraging him to stand up for himself to the giants. And rapidly, they trust and befriend each other, leading to the BFG taking Sophie to Dream Country, where he collects dreams and nightmares to share with sleepers around the world. With that in mind, Sophie and the BFG form a plan—one that would protect them from the giants, once and for all.

With “Hook,” Spielberg looked at the story of Peter Pan, childhood, and lost innocence; similar themes are at play in “The BFG,” but what’s strange about the film is how its narrative ultimately works to keep Sophie and the BFG apart. In Dahl’s original work, the pair settled down together as best friends, going on their own adventures. Here, the conclusion—and the motivations for each character—are altered in a way that may be more believable or acceptable for modern audiences, but why?

The companionship between the two is what should be primary, given how linked they are in their loneliness and otherness from the rest of the world, but “The BFG” disappointingly doesn’t go down that path. There is a sadness here that feels hastily remedied.

Still, “The BFG” has numerous enjoyable elements: Barnhill brings to mind Mara Wilson, that fantastic child actress from “Matilda,” and Rylance does excellent things with Dahl’s unique dialogue, imbuing his voice with all kinds of emotions. How he sighs “We gets on with it” when Sophie asks how he lives is heart-breaking. A lengthy sequence in Dream Country is gorgeous, with dreams visualized as neon balls of glowing light, and the scenes in London are, in contrast, thoughtfully glum.

For what it is, “The BFG” is enjoyable, delivering visually and especially with Rylance’s performance. But as a Roald Dahl adaptation, the latest from Spielberg doesn’t quite capture the right magic.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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