'The BFG' can't recapture Steven Spielberg's old magic

big friendly giant disney

Wonder and whimsy are difficult to conjure on screen, and those qualities are too often beyond the reach of "The BFG," Steven Spielberg's movie based on Roald Dahl's children's book.

Notably, the book was published in 1982, the year before "E.T. the Extraterrestrial," Spielberg's classic collaboration with writer Melissa Mathison. The two have reunited here, made all the more profound by Mathison's death in November at 65.

Few conceits are more durable than the foundation of both "E.T." and "The BFG," the idea of a child having a special relationship with a fantastic creature. Still, the result here is ungainly, and at times surprisingly dull -- a PG-rated film that could be a little scary in places for younger kids, and too simplistic to wow older ones, despite the visual effects required to realize its towering title character.

Spielberg's first directorial effort for Disney (DIS) thus winds up in a kind of creative no man's land. It's a movie that wouldn't look out of place on the Disney Channel, but which of course could never have been made for it due to the A-list talent and whopping budget required to bring its leading man to life.

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As embodied by Mark Rylance -- who earned an Oscar for his last turn with Spielberg, in "Bridge of Spies" -- the BFG (which stands for "big friendly giant") actually has a lot in common with Yoda. Both mangle the language and have oversized ears; it's just that one is about 15 times taller.

Almost immediately, a plucky orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) catches sight of the giant as he prowls the streets of London, prompting him to whisk her away to Giant Country. Once there, she sees his elaborate workshop and dream-catching devices, but must endeavor to avoid detection by his fellow giants, who like nothing better than to devour children. (Conveniently, the BFG is a confirmed vegetarian.)

Those other giants tower over the BFG -- referring to him as "runt" -- and treat him terribly. Meanwhile, Sophie's time among them is constantly perilous, leading to one narrow escape after another lest they sniff out her presence.

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Just when the movie seems beyond hope, the action briefly sparks to life. The energy comes courtesy of a cameo by "Downton Abbey's" Penelope Wilton as the Queen of England, as well as colorful gusts of giant-infused flatulence.

It's a bit too little, too late. "The BFG" is mostly a big snooze, despite the earnest endeavors of Spielberg, Mathison and a buoyant John Williams score to create a sense of magic. Even the giant's garbled dialogue ("You calls me what you likes") will yield diminishing returns, except perhaps among those who can recite "Jabberwocky."

The movie carries the dedication "For our Melissa," which is, alas, more moving than almost anything else "The BFG" musters. Because despite a giant-sized pedigree, this slight production seldom gets airborne, much less over the moon.

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