Among the great gifts a young Steven Spielberg gave to the movies was a sense of wonder.
“Close Encounters,” “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are plenty smart, but they work because of the childlike awe with which Spielberg approaches his stories.
A 69-year-old Spielberg brings back the awe with “The BFG,” a fantasy designed to tickle the kid in each of us.
Based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book, “The BFG” (it stands for Big Friendly Giant) soars on a couple of terrific lead performances, astonishing special effects and a droll sensibility. I even wonder if Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance could land another nomination for playing the giant — a computer-animated character?
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The film also represents the last screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, whose kid-friendly credits include “The Black Stallion,” “E.T.” and “The Indian in the Cupboard.”
Ten-year-old Sophie (a terrific Ruby Barnhill) lives in a London orphanage and dreams of escape. One night she spies an immense dark figure moving furtively through the streets.
Confronting this vision, she soon finds herself in Giant Land, where she is a guest/captive of the BFG (Rylance), whose job it is to collect and redistribute children’s dreams.
The BFG is a benign eccentric who converses in his own brand of Yoda-speak, tossing around tongue-twisting words like “frobscottle” and “snozzcumber.”
BFG is a vegetarian, but the same cannot be said for the other giant inhabitants of the place. These skyscraper-sized Neanderthals have a taste for human flesh (especially children) and bear appropriately gruesome names like Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater (their voices are provided by Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement and Rafe Spall, among others).
With the BFG as her protector Sophie gets accustomed to her new surroundings, eventually accompanying her big buddy back to London, where they pay a visit to none other than the queen (Penelope Wilton of “Downton Abbey,” doing a delightfully loopy version of Her Majesty). Only the military might of Great Britain can bring an end to the rampages of the man-eating giants.
“The BFG” features a terrific Act I and a sublimely silly and satisfying Act III.
The middle portion, alas, feels padded and pointless and soon wears out its welcome. It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but it brings the overall pleasure quotient down a notch or two.
Still, there’s plenty to relish. Like Barnhill’s performance. Her Sophie is a solemn little thing, staring at the world through thick spectacles (she could pass herself off as an owlet). Child actors often can’t help being cute, but young Miss Barnhill keeps a tight lid on the charm, proving that less is indeed more.
Rylance (who won an Oscar this year for his role in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”) is a wonderful bundle of eccentricities. He’s not just a human voice coming from an animated character. The BFG bears Rylance’s face (albeit with oversized ears and a broadened brow) and the result is a true performance that mines all of the character’s subtleties.
Much of “The BFG” is funny-weird rather than funny-haha. But in the Buckingham Palace sequence there is some glorious hilarity, thanks to Wilton’s queen, a pack of uncontrollably energetic corgis and a giant-brewed quaff capable of producing Richter-registering flatulence.
That’s right, fart jokes. And they’re a hoot.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG. Time: 1:50.
3-D or not 3-D?
Spend the extra bucks and make “The BFG” a thoroughly immersive experience. There are moments here when you feel like our heroine, sitting in the giant’s palm and staring into his big, big face.