The fun thing about British author Roald Dahl has always been his authentic streak of malice. His children’s books, like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and James And The Giant Peach, all have a subversive undercurrent of darkness and violence under the quirk. (His adult short stories aren’t as well known, but they’re terrific, and they add a frank, sometimes graphic sexuality to the mix.) The unapologetic ghoulishness is part of what makes Dahl’s work so appealing to kids, who tend to be even more fascinated with hints of gore and horror than adults are. Which may explain why Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of Dahl’s book The BFG feels so sleepy and dull: It replaces most of the sense of threat with sentiment, and plays up the whimsy at the expense of any other emotion. It feels like a neutered version of Dahl, one without the gleeful derangement of Gene Wilder in the 1971 screen adaptation Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, or Anjelica Huston in the 1990 version of The Witches. There are a few scary seconds here and there, but for the most part, this is a version of Dahl with the claws clipped, and it feels not just safe, but downright sleepy.
The BFG started out as a bedtime story for Dahl’s granddaughter Sophie, which explains a lot of the content: the protagonist is a bossy, fearless little girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who’s kidnapped from her bed one night by a gangly giant (Bridge Of Spies’ Mark Rylance, heavily digitally altered to expand his ears, nose, neck, and hands.) Sophie is a quintessential Dahl heroine, wise beyond her years and more capable than the ineffectual adults around her. When Sophie learns that the Big Friendly Giant has spent his entire long life watching his much bigger, dumber, and more aggressive siblings eat children, she hatches a plan to stop them.
The giants' unwieldy names and unpleasant habits are taken straight from Dahl's book, and they represent Spielberg's one concession to the original version's creepiness: Giants like Fleshlumpeater (Flight Of The Conchords' Jemaine Clement), Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), and Childchewer (Jonathan Holmes) at least sound pretty ghastly. But The BFG plays them more like schoolyard bullies than monsters. They're malicious, but slow and predictable, and the film veers away from their kid-eating activities except by implication. Spielberg and late screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who also scripted his E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial more than 30 years ago) spend much more of the film's run time focusing on the digital wonderland of Giant Country, where The BFG runs around netting brightly colored, firefly-like dreams and popping them into bottles, so he can later blow them up sleepers' noses. A surprising percentage of the movie is just devoted to The BFG explaining himself and his life to Sophie, revealing how his immense ears let him listen to the voices of the trees and the music of the stars, or how much he enjoys a fizzy concoction called frobscottle that causes explosive green flatulence.
All those explanations build an elaborate world via colorful malapropisms. The BFG has no formal education, and tends to "say things a little squiggly," complete with his own elaborate Dahlian vocabulary: Those frobscottle-induced farts are whizpoppers; a good, satisfying dream is a phizzwizard; a particularly bad nightmare is a trogglehumper, and so forth. But an awful lot of the film just consists of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids antics. Like Sophie interacting with giant-sized furnishings and colorful digital backdrops, or climbing into a disgusting, drippy vegetable to hide, or falling into a mixing bowl and rolling around. None of this disguises the fact that not a lot happens in The BFG, and even the action is excruciatingly padded and erratically paced. The film's best scene — The BFG's quick-moving, silent flight across London as he whisks Sophie away from her home — is visually clever and tightly paced, and it just emphasizes how sleepy and plodding the rest of the story is. Even when Sophie comes up with a plan, it proceeds glacially, with the characters explaining what they plan to do, then leaving long, slack gaps in the story while they do it.
Spielberg's weakness has always been wonder and whimsy at the expense of forward movement, and here, he's working with Walden Media, the Christian entertainment company that's built an ethos out of producing effects-heavy, pointedly wholesome kids' movies like Bridge To Terabithia, The Water Horse, City Of Ember, and the recent live-action Narnia movies. Walden's films have a particular glossy, unreal digital look, and The BFG is no exception. Spielberg is an old hand with special effects, but here, the world looks artificial and shiny to a fault, and Sophie's interactions with it are reminiscent of the stiff integration of animation and live action in Disney's Bedknobs And Broomsticks. There's nothing seamless or casual about the way The BFG picks her up, or the way she clambers around his den; it's all garish, showy artifice, and she never entirely feels like part of his world.
The BFG does closely follow Dahl's book, which is as much about building a mutually satisfying relationship between two lonely people as it is about the menace of people-eating giants. Spielberg's an experienced adapter, having brought Jaws and Jurassic Park, War Of The Worlds, and Duel to the screen. But he never finds a streak of action in The BFG to match those films, or a sense of the human experience or the meaningful characters from those stories. It's partially a problem with the source material, which is small, quirky, and not paced like a fantasy film. But it's also a problem with Spielberg's tone, which hovers around awe and delight in the film's strongest moments, and can't find anything equally powerful to fill out the long slack periods while waiting for something meaningful to happen.
At least The BFG lacks the strident messaging of so many kids' films. Even though the story centers closely on dreams (in a fuzzy, abstract, sentimental sort of way), there's no "Follow your dreams, you can do anything" message here. If anything, The BFG is melancholy about the compromises of adulthood, and the difficulty of choosing one life path at the expense of others. That's a mighty heady direction for a kids' fantasy to take, and the conversation Sophie and her giant have about her future feels like the film's one strange concession to subversiveness and sadness. But mostly, there's a smug contentment to this story that perversely isn't very satisfying. The BFG shows it's possible for a film to feel completely inert, even if it's constantly in motion.