‘The BFG’ movie review: Spielberg’s adaptation lacks tension or conflict

As someone with a great appreciation and affection for Steven Spielberg, I was thrilled when it was announced he would be turning his attention to Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

The arguments that Spielberg is an unwavering sentimentalist, infantilising every screenplay he comes across and generally dumbing down his adaptions in the process have never really held much water. A picture such as E.T. – often Exhibit A when Spielberg is criticised for his saccharine tendencies – still has enough of a bite, and enough scares, that by the time the film does reach it’s admittedly rather overblown climax, it has been well and truly earned by the preceding hour of horror.

It was with a heavy heart then that, when the closing credits rolled on The BFG, I realised Spielberg had finally proven his critics right. The works of Dahl always possessed no small amount of mischievously gleeful wickedness, a spiky irreverence that delivered an abundance of scares in between the jet black humour. In Spielberg’s hands, this edge is almost entirely filed off, replaced with a sense of wonder that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Harry Potter entry, but which feels somewhat out of place when brought to bear on Dahl’s acerbic material.

The villainous giants, so memorably frightening both in the book and in the 1989 animated adaption, are here reduced to providing broad comic relief. These giants are bullies yes, but despite being  creatures given to snatching and eating children in the dark of the night, Spielberg seems hesitant to imbue them with any real threat or malice. As a result, the film lacks any real tension or conflict, both its drama and pacing suffering in the process, and leads to one of the more toothless climaxes one can recall from Spielberg.

As for the BFG himself, Mark Rylance delivers a truly wonderful performance, full of warmth and naivety, and assuming a voice so perfect that one would swear it was in Dahl’s own head when he wrote the story. The motion capture used in the process of bringing this character to life holds up well enough in Giant country, but the edges seem to fray in the later sequences where the BFG is required to interact with practical sets and actors.

There is also a disappointing weightlessness to this gigantic figure, who jumps about in mighty bounds in a manner all too reminiscent of Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk.

11-year-old Ruby Barnhill acquits herself admirably in her debut film performance, but in a reversal of the BFG’s problematic palace interactions, the divide between the live action actress and digital surroundings of Giant Country has the unfortunate consequence of leaving her performance feeling as if it were delivered in isolation, a strange disconnect emerging between Barnhill and everything around her.

Ultimately then, The BFG is a disappointment. Roald Dahl and Spielberg, both beloved and accomplished entertainers of children and parents alike, just don’t share a close enough sensibility for the BFG to ever take flight. Somewhere there is an adaption of The BFG inside the head of the Spielberg who gave us all of the gruesomeness of Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s exploding heads, or the irreverence of Gremlins, which he holds an exec producer credit on.

Instead we end up with a unique oddity in his back catalogue; the first truly toothless Spielberg film.

Released in UK cinemas on Friday 22 July 2016.

> Take a look at reviewer Harry Leonard’s blog.

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