The combination that came together to create The BFG feels like something destined to make a stunning movie. The story is based on a book by Roald Dahl, the inventive mind behind such stories as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach. The screenplay is written by the late Melissa Matheson, who also wrote E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It's directed by Steven Spielberg, in his first collaboration with Disney. This is a recipe for success if ever there was one, and while everybody involved has certainly cooked up something unique, it's not quite enough to keep you full. Wow, that metaphor got out of hand.
The BFG opens with Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a young girl living in an orphanage in England. One night, she inadvertently witnesses a giant walking through the streets, like you do. Upon realizing that he's been noticed, the giant snatches Sophie out of her bed, and takes her to Giant Country, ostensibly to live forever, so that she never tells anybody what she saw. Eventually, however, Sophie and the giant become friends and work together to combat a group of even larger giants, who treat the BFG (whom they call Runt) as their servant, and have a taste for "human beans."
To be sure, The BFG has charm and style like you wouldn't believe. While seeing Giant Country from the perspective of tiny Sophie is fun, the film's visual highlight is Dream Country, where the BFG (short for Big Friendly Giant) does his work of collecting dreams to distribute to children. Dream Country is a beautiful place where dreams fly through the sky like fireflies. Steven Spielberg's ability to create a world of pure enjoyment is on full display here.
Newcomer Barnhill is great as Sophie. She does a stellar job as the lead human character of the film who spends 90% of her total screen time acting alongside computer-generated giants. She does as much as any digital effect to make the giants feel real. Mark Rylance's performance as the titular BFG is also solid. His dialog is full of absolute gibberish language, something Roald Dahl is known for, and while it might eventually get on the nerves of some viewers, it never really bothered me. Together, these two carry the movie on their backs. The relationship between the two characters is endearing and most viewers will be happy enough just watching these two spend time together.
It's good that just watching Sophie and the BFG together is enough to carry the movie, because there really isn't much else here. At one point, I literally stopped to ask myself what this movie was about, and I realized I couldn't say. The problem is that The BFG's major conflict never really feels like it's a conflict. Sophie and the BFG talk about the terrible things that the other giants are up to, but as those events only occur off screen, it's difficult for the audience to get invested in them. Most of the time, the characters don't seem invested either.
Ultimately, the reason The BFG spends so little time focusing on the conflict is that it's not really interested in it, either. The film's finale wraps in a battle scene that's the definition of anti-climactic. The scenes about how to deal with the giants take up about three times as much screen time as the dealing with it does. Those scenes involve big CGI sequences with the BFG being silly, and the movie would much rather spend its time with that. To be fair, most little kids, for whom this film is geared, probably would too.
On the one hand, one wants to commend Steven Spielberg, the source material doesn't end in a massive set piece battle, which has only been inserted because summer blockbusters require them (as was done with the Narnia films). But on the other hand, many viewers will likely find themselves wondering what the point was when it's over.
In the final analysis, it's impossible to not get a little lost in much of what The BFG is. It's big and adorable and charming. There's nothing wrong with any of that. As an enjoyable time at the movies The BFG succeeds. But as anything more than that it comes up short. The BFG is a beautiful dream, that won't really be able to remember when you wake up.