Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill make an unlikely pair of friends in "The BFG."

A few months ago, many observers were stunned when Mark Rylance won the Oscar for Best Supporting actor for his work on Bridge of Spies over favorite Sylvester Stallone. Maybe you saw the ceremony on TV and wondered who this Rylance guy was. I can’t blame you if you did. The 56-year-old native of Kent has given some excellent performances on screen in the 1996 period drama Angels and Insects and the recent TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, but most of his work has been on the stage. He served for 10 years as the founding artistic director of the rebuilt Globe Theater in London and has won three Tony Awards and a haul of trophies in England. It’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg is besotted with this keen and subtle actor, having cast him in three movies since Bridge of Spies. Unfortunately, the first of these is The BFG, which looks destined to go down as one of the worst and least essential films of Spielberg’s storied career. We’re talking a Hook-level disaster, people. It’s not pretty.

Set in Britain in an ambiguous time period, the movie stars Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, a 10-year-old orphaned girl whose habit of staying up late and watching the street outside her home gets her a forbidden glimpse of a giant (Rylance) quietly roaming London. He spirits her off to his home in Giant Country in the far north Atlantic to keep her from telling anyone about his existence, but she soon learns that a) he’s a friendly giant who’s considered an outcast among his fellow giants for refusing to eat children and b) he’s actually rather small for his kind at 24 feet tall. Since he is a big friendly giant, Sophie nicknames him “BFG” and helps him formulate a plan to neutralize his fellow giants as a threat to children.

This is adapted from Roald Dahl’s story to mark the 100th anniversary of the Welsh author’s birth. Like too many other cinematic Dahl adaptations, this one becomes bloated and lumbering, missing the small-scale, homespun charm that lies at the heart of even his epic-sized creations. Sophie’s rattling around the oversize utensils in BFG’s home is rendered precisely without generating any sense of wonder, and BFG’s journey with her to Dream Country where he catches dreams that look like smoldering, flitting colored lights is an attempt at beauty that falls disappointingly flat. Even worse comes when BFG comes out of hiding and visits the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) to enlist her help. The collision of this giant’s unschooled manners with royal protocol only results in the most predictable jokes from the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who collaborated with Spielberg on E.T. and to whose memory the film is dedicated. Compared to films like Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox that got the essence of Dahl right, The BFG comes off as a sadly inadequate flight of fancy from storytellers we expected better from.


[box_info]The BFG
Starring Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Melissa Mathison, based on Roald Dahl’s story. Rated PG.[/box_info]