‘The BFG” is the latest gob-stopping marvel of pixel-enhanced family fantasy, but it only works as an emotional experience because of four human beings, two behind the camera and two in front of it.
Well . . . one and a half in front. Mark Rylance, the great, reclusive star of TV’s “Wolf Hall” and the big screen’s “Bridge of Spies” — for which he won a supporting actor Oscar in February — is only partially on view as the Big Friendly Giant of the title. Rylance spent the production capering about a studio set while covered in electronic post-its, but the rangy, raw-boned, galumphing critter that has been digitally layered atop his body has his eyes, sad and knowing, and his hesitant way of moving.
This is a very British giant, a figure out of the country’s pre-industrial past. William Blake would have approved; the BFG’s feet seem as though they actually have walked in ancient time through England’s mountains green. (Plus, they’re really, really big.)
As Sophie, the 10-year-old London orphan who is swept up and befriended by the BFG, Ruby Barnhill is the other key personage
onscreen, and she is a no-nonsense delight — the British love of pragmatism in a small, visibly annoyed package. An insomniac and a reader, she looks out her window one 3 a.m. to catch the BFG on his nightly foray into the city; their eyes lock and, to protect the secret of his existence, he pockets her and whisks her away to Giant Country, which is somewhere off the map to the north of the Orkney Island.
She’s more alarmed than scared, although the younger of your children might start yowling when the BFG pulls out a rusty cleaver and commences to dicing a Snozzcumber, which is something like a cucumber with intestines. He is revealed to be the gentlest of souls, of course, with a knack for mangling up new words like “delumptious,” “gruncious,” and “squibbling.”
But then we’re introduced to his fellow giants, all much larger and hungrier. They have names like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), and they loom into the film’s 3-D lens like oversized school bullies. The film perches on the apex between whimsy and nightmare, and for a long time you’re not sure which way it’ll go.
But the pleasure of reading Roald Dahl’s children’s books — as a child or as an adult — is for that agreeably morbid tingle. The darkness in his work acknowledges all the things grown-ups don’t like to talk about but kids already know, and then there’s the fun of horrible comeuppances happening to horrible people (or giants, as the case may be). A lot of movies have been made from Dahl’s books, but only the best honor the weirdness in his pages and the sense that, but for one kind person or lucky turn of events, these stories might just as easily be tragedies.
“The BFG” feels like Dahl, all right — just re-imagined through the worldview of Steven Spielberg, which means sun in place of shadow and sentiment (occasionally sentimentality) in place of the wickedly dry. It’s a giant-sized movie only because Spielberg has long lost the knack of doing small, and the contributions of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams only add to the sense of a vast canvas. But it’s fun and scary-giggly and full of that broad multiplex sense of wonder that St. Steven does so well because he believes in it. And, yes, it matters that the screenplay is by Melissa Mathison, who penned “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and who completed “The BFG” before her death at 65 from cancer last November. (The film is dedicated to her.)
The Spielberg influence means that the creepy bits of Dahl’s book are smoothed into a ripe cinematic show and the funny bits become even funnier. The scene in which Sophie and her friendly giant have an audience with Queen Elizabeth over breakfast is the high point. Penelope Wilton — Mrs. Crawley on “Downton Abbey” — plays Her Majesty with an unflappable sense of decorum, Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall struggle to keep their faces straight, and there’s a long run-up to a truly inspired fart joke that is a master class in how to build cinematic suspense. (The kids in the screening I was at were screaming with joy.)
“The BFG” is too eccentric to be a massive box-office hit yet too mainstream for a cult following; it nevertheless deserves to be seen. Mostly, it works as a singular and slightly wobbly mash-up of two creative artists and their differing sensibilities, and it benefits greatly from the contributions of one brilliant actor and one little girl. Maybe I’m squibbling, but I think it’s pretty delumptious.
Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Written by Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 110 minutes. PG (action/peril, some scary moments, brief rude humor, royal green flatulence).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tyburr.