The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG is set in the middle of the night, “the witching hour,” we’re told, “when the boogeyman comes out, when people go missing.” And something about the way the scene is lensed and paced captures that particular magic, of being a little kid and the only one awake, of feeling like you’re up when the whole world is down. The girl who is up, whose name is Sophie, discovers the boogeyman soon enough – a ginormous thing quite literally going bump in the night, who sees that he’s been seen, and sure enough, takes her away from her orphanage to the land of giants. Spielberg keys in on a particular tone in these early scenes, and rides it all the way through – a sort of offhand oddness mixed with earned whimsy. Ultimately, the picture is something of an all-or-nothing proposition; you either tune in to it right away, or you don’t. I did.
Though there are a handful of additional characters, what we’ve got here is basically a two-hander, between little Sophie (played by the wonderful Ruby Barnhill), and the title character. That title stands for Big Friendly Giant – though feel free to work up your own variations, I know I have – and he’s played by Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies scene-stealer Mark Rylance, after a trip through the CGI machine to outsize his form and further expand his hands and ears. Yet it remains a remarkably human performance, thanks to his soulful eyes and the sweetness behind them; he’s never particularly threatening, and he’s quickly revealed as a charming comic creation.
He dwells alone, a dwarf in this village of giants, entertaining himself with odd grunt-singing and sideways conversation, and there’s a sense of glee in the pleasure Rylance (and thus the movie, and thus the audience) takes in his eccentric language and dizzy malapropisms. He says things “a little squiggly,” like his concern that if he lets her go, she’ll talk about him on “the telly-telly bunkin’ box and the radio squeaker,” so he decides she must stay. Sophie, with only a miserable orphanage to return to, resists at first, before realizing she’s probably got nothing to lose.
And thus the middle section concerns the tentativeness of their relationship, and the warmth that grows between them. He takes her with him on his journeys into the night, going back into her world via improvised hiding places to capture dreams and keep them in little jars. He hears, as he puts it, “all the secret whisperings of the world,” and can see the dreams of sleeping humans (in inspired shadow plays). But all is not sweetness and light; within his village, he is bullied and battered by his fellow giants, “murderers and canny-bals” who are stealing children not for friendship, but for dinner.
Early on, the artificiality of the sets and effects is sort of peculiar; this is a filmmaker who’s made a career out of convincingly creating other worlds and extraordinary sights, and it seems strange that this one looks so false. But it ultimately meshes if you read the picture as a big-hearted fairy tale, up to an including the involvement of the Queen of England herself, culminating in a breakfast sequence with cleverly oversized dishes for the BFG (and a fart joke which confirms that if you’re going to do that kind of thing, you might as well go all the way with it).
The BFG never quite nails author Dahl’s sense of danger – even in their first scene, you don’t think he’ll actually eat her – though there’s plenty of his cheerful weirdness, complimented by a John Williams score whose general too much-ness is, for once, just as it should be. The script is by the late Melissa Mathison, her first credited collaboration with Spielberg since E.T., which means this film is bound for comparisons to that earlier tale of the bond between a child and an out-of-this-world companion. It’s comes up short by that metric, unsurprisingly, but it says something about what’s already been dismissed as “middling Spielberg” that such an effort still tops the best of most mainstream moviemakers, few of whom will ever find images as indelible as these. They are like the BFG’s dreams, fireflies chased gently through the night.
The BFG is out Friday.