Roald Dahl is best-known for whimsically dour children's books, which present beleaguered children facing an adult world that is at best indifferent to them and at worst just plain malicious. The child (more than likely an orphan) who lets his or her guard down in a Dahl book is likely to be thrown into servitude, eaten by giants or turned into a giant blueberry. Steven Spielberg is known (among other things) for sentimental adventures where children live in sterile suburban neighborhoods, women (i.e., mothers) seldom have jobs, and crane shots lead directly into his protagonists' faces to let us know they've seen something awe-inspiring. The BFG places Dahl's disruptive humor head-to-head against Spielberg's effects-driven, family-friendly instincts. Guess what? Dahl wins.
The BFG is the story of a young girl, Sophie, and yes, she's an orphan. She's seized by a giant as he wanders through London late at night and taken to his home in Giant Country, where he's bullied by his larger neighbors. Ruby Barnhill, the eleven-year-old actress who plays Sophie, is very good; Mark Rylance's giant, created by a combination of motion-capture and computer imaging, is exceptional, bringing humanity and depth to Dahl's considerably less-defined figure. Rylance even manages to recreate some of the elusive charm of Quentin Blake's original, scratchy illustrations.
I suppose that Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison could have found some way to insert the tear-jerking Old Yeller bathos of their earlier E.T., but Dahl's story seems particularly resistant to it. Their successful compromise is to create a convincing friendship between Sophie and the BFG — Big Friendly Giant — without resorting to mawkishness or dulling Dahl's comic edge.
The BFG is one of Dahl's shaggier stories: For about two-thirds of the book, the title character simply lectures Sophie about the ways and habits of his race. Unlike his larger neighbors, who tend to go around the world eating children, the BFG prefers to collect dreams and blow them into the bedrooms of children. It's heavy on exposition, punctuated with wordplay (the giant uses the words "disgusterous" and "rotsome"), and includes a lengthy digression in which the title character reads from his collection of dreams and suffers episodes of flatulence. Dahl wraps up things with a more plot-driven sequence in which Sophie and the giant enlist the Queen of England to help them defeat the bigger and less friendly giants.
Spielberg's film stays close to the structure of the book, but it's the rambling, expositional portion that works best. The climactic sequence, while not without its charm, suffers from indifferent casting (was Helen Mirren unavailable?). Up until then much of the film takes place in the BFG's home, a cross between an enormous cave and a flea market, with a sailboat (which he uses for a bed), waterfalls and miles of exotic fauna and antique debris.
Spielberg lets his camera soar through Rick Carter's exhaustingly clever production design, following Sophie as she moves through its seemingly endless nooks and crannies and playing with the constantly shifting perspectives of the many-sized characters. Spielberg has tried to create this kind of playground environment before, less successfully (think of the Neverland set in Hook), but this time the combination of imaginative decoration, a fluid camera and a sense of perspective make it a joy to watch even when the narrative slows down. This is the rare film in which 3-D is almost a necessity.
Here's the odd thing: Steven Spielberg has been a major presence in American films for at least 41 years. He's made a few good films and just as many mediocre ones, but for most of his work (notwithstanding the obvious leaning toward weighty historical subjects), his celebrated child-like wonder masks an inability to look or think like an adult. Once you look beyond the special effects and action scenes, he doesn't have much to say beyond a few Reader's Digest platitudes and talking points about family values: Listen to your parents, watch out for bad aliens, don't be a Nazi. The BFG doesn't have the heavy-handedness of most Spielberg films. It's as if, confronted by Dahl's unrestrained nonsense, the director finally lost his inhibitions and went with the playful current. Spielberg's inner child has finally released its inner child.