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Movie review: Spielberg, Dahl work well together in ‘The BFG’

Ruby Barnhill appears in a scene with the Big Friendly Giant, voiced by Mark Rylance.
Ruby Barnhill appears in a scene with the Big Friendly Giant, voiced by Mark Rylance. Disney

It makes sense that the sensibilities of Steven Spielberg and Roald Dahl would someday collide, as they do in Spielberg’s adaptation of Dahl’s “The BFG.” Both artists often tell stories about misunderstood children finding connections with misunderstood, fantastical, alien creatures. They have a knack for drawing out the dark and maudlin aspects of childhood, the loneliness and isolation, as well as the capacity for wonder and amazement, the sheer possibility of anything and everything.

That dreamy wonderment is the best part of the filmed “The BFG,” a slow haze that creeps over you unsuspected.

The film is a faithful translation of Dahl’s book, with screenwriter Melissa Mathison ably bringing Dahl’s nonsensical language of the Big Friendly Giant to cinematic life.

Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a Soviet spy in Spielberg’s 2015 film “Bridge of Spies,” wonderfully inhabits the CGI character of the BFG, a gentle giant, the runt of his pack, who spends his time catching dreams and blowing them into bedrooms at night. His hillbilly British accent and creative, “squiggled” word combinations spin you up into Dahl’s inimitable style, honed by Mathison.

Opposite Rylance is the precocious Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, the orphan who spies him from her window at night, and whom he spirits away to Giant Country to keep his secret. The lonely, imaginative and smart Sophie finds an adventure in the BFG, a friend, a protector; in Sophie, the BFG has something outside of his own curious existence to live for. Theirs is a specific kind of friendship, finite, contained from the outset.

Sophie sparks a great “rumpledumpus” in Giant Country. Her presence is quickly sniffed out by a rugby team of giants, with names like Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler, slumbering under sod blankets outside the BFG’s stone door, hungry for human beings. Under attack, she urges her new friend to stand up to the bullies, and even escorts him right to The Queen’s palace for a chat about giant-human diplomacy.

There’s a sweet magic in the film’s style, particularly in the twinkling aurora borealis firefly light of BFG’s dream workshop, where he collects and labels the dreams that he disperses. But there’s also a softness to the dramatic arc of the film, which doesn’t so much march forward as it wafts along, with rather low stakes and all-too-easy resolutions.

The BFG

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement

Director: Steven Spielberg

117 minutes

Rated PG (action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor)

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