Cannes Day 4: Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’ is fine, but curiously lacking the expected emotional heft

"The BFG"

“The BFG”

Steven Spielberg, who premiered the classic “E.T.” in Cannes, is back again with “The BFG,” a charming but not quite great film based on the Roald Dahl story about a little girl who is kidnapped by a friendly giant from a London orphanage.

The movie has all the trappings of great story, filled with spectacular visual effects and nice messages for families and children. The little but plucky orphan Sophie (is there any other kind in the movies?) dares to stay up past the witching hour, when ghosts and dreamy creatures roam the streets. Played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill, Sophie accidentally sees a giant roaming the streets, and he knows that he can’t let her stay in London, because she might tell people of his existence. So he plucks her from the bed where she’s hiding and takes her to Giant Country.

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As the giant, Oscar winner Mark Rylance has to perform through motion-capture technology, but he does a fine job, making the creature endearingly dim and lovable. He’s also like Sophie in some ways. In Giant Country, he’s an outcast because he’s not as big as the other giants. And he’s a vegetarian. The other giants like to eat people.

So the Big Friendly Giant has to hide Sophie from the rest of the gang, but they have big noses and can smell her presence.

At first, Sophie keeps trying to escape but realizes rather quickly that she’s found a kindred spirit. In fact, the giant takes Sophie on adventures in dreamland, where the BFG captures various types of dreams and keeps them stored in bottles back at his home.

But things go awry when the other giants decide they must find Sophie and be rid of her. So Sophie and the BFG have to hatch a plan: They’ll go visit the queen of England (“Downton Abbey’s” Penelope Wilton) and warn her that the giants might be responsible for the snatching multiple children across the land. It helps that they can release a dream into Buckingham Palace that supports the dire warning.

After an initial hesitancy, Sophie gets the BFG to reveal himself outside the queen’s bedroom window, and before long, everyone is having breakfast in a grand ballroom. And it’s this scene that will probably leave children laughing out loud. It turns out that the BFG has brought along his favorite fizzy drink, where the bubbles go down rather than up. And this causes much flatulence. Yes, the queen takes a sip, and there’s a bit of an unseemly incident.

The aim is to get the queen to launch a raid into giant land and save England. You can probably guess that they’re successful, especially since this is one of the most beloved children’s tales of modern times.

The optimism, a Spielberg trademark, comes through loud and clear. But there’s something missing emotionally between the giant and the girl. It’s not up to the same level of that in “E.T.” Then again, most movies can’t match “E.T.” in that regard.

At a press conference after the screening in Cannes on Saturday, Spielberg said that the making of “The BFG” brought back feelings he had as a young filmmaker, and he noted that he had read the book to his children when they were growing up. “This is probably the closest I’ve come to telling a love story,” he added.

He continued to stress that he hoped people responded to the overall message of “The BFG,” and that audiences realize that such movies “give us hope to fight on for another day.”

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