Perhaps it’s only when he’s giant size that you can really appreciate what a great face Mark Rylance has. The British actor — who won a surprise Oscar in February for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies — plays the title character in the director’s latest fantasy, The BFG, an adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s story that had its first screening at Cannes on Saturday. As the motion-capture Big Friendly Giant, Rylance uses his animated mug to great effect, popping his kind brown eyes in astonishment or scrunching them up when he grins. It’s a charming performance that marries human talent with Spielberg’s technical wonders. So it’s a shame, then, that the movie often ends up plodding along like another inhabitant of Giant Country.
At the press conference after the screening, both Spielberg and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy spoke about their memories of premiering E.T. at Cannes 34 years ago. Thematically, at least, the movies are similar. (The BFG was also the last screenplay from E.T. writer Melissa Mathison, who passed away late last year.) The BFG introduces us to young Sophie (assured, precocious newcomer Ruby Barnhill), an insomniac bookworm living in a London orphanage who happens to spy the title giant out on the street one night. To preserve his secrecy, he whisks her away to Giant Country, an off-the-map otherworld where we find he’s actually the runt of the litter, a soft-hearted vegetarian surrounded by bloodthirsty, child-eating ogres (including Fleshlumpeater, the ringleader, played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement). The BFG is a dream-whisperer of sorts, who collects firefly-like reveries — including Sophie’s wish for a family — but has no taste for the confrontation with his fellow giants that the courageous Sophie insists is in the offing.
The scenes are beautiful to look at, and Rylance and Barnhill have a touching rapport. But for much of the first half, the pacing of the plot feels slack — several critics noted Rylance’s slow line readings of the BFG’s tongue-twisted syntax — and, considering the scares in Dahl’s book, there’s an odd lack of menace during scenes featuring giants named Childchewer and Meatdripper. It’s not until the Queen of England (a brisk, funny Penelope Wilton from Downton Abbey) is called upon to help defeat the evil giants that the movie gets the fresh jolt it had been lacking. We’re treated to a winning set piece of the BFG in a ballroom at Buckingham Palace, as the stiff-upper-lip staff tries to properly serve him a giant-size breakfast, a meal that culminates in a procession of royal farts caused by the BFG’s homebrew. It’s madcap and a little bit rude and brings to mind the determined weirdness of an earlier Dahl adaptation, 1996’s Matilda. It’s exactly the kind of fizz — or whizzpopping? — The BFG could’ve used more of.
Watch the trailer: