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Cleaning Up The BFG

Steven Spielberg's scare-free adaptation renders Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant as a big ol' softy in a sanitized fantasy

The BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant, but writer Roald Dahl probably hoped your mind would think of something worse. His usually did. Dahl was a horny, drunken, handsome jerk who did a lot of that other type of F-ing. Just tell your local toddler that he was very, very friendly.

Britain’s controversial author amused himself penning short stories about 7-foot penises. (Sorry to break it to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fans, but “snozzberry” was his slang for dick.) When he wanted to make money, he scribbled something for the kids, like this hasty tale about an orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) whisked from London to the land of the giants. The double entendre in The BFG must have made him snort with glee, especially when it became a best seller the year after his publishers threatened to cancel his book deal due to Dahl’s “utter lack of civility.” Revenge explains why a writer known for his mellifluous nonsense — crodsquinkled, gunzleswiped, Oompa-Loompa — saddled a major character with blunt initials that roll off the tongue like peanut butter.

Dahl’s editors tidied up the book, mopped up most of his racism, and made millions of dollars. The BFG kept in his cute mock-bigotry, like how his man-eating giants think that Danes taste like dogs, Turks taste like turkey, and Greeks are too greasy. That decade, Dahl openly admitted to The Independent that he had “become anti-Semitic.” To his young readers, he was still their daffy great-uncle.

Now here comes Steven Spielberg to scrub him even cleaner with this big-budget, live-action adventure. Today, the giants aren’t even food critics. They’re happy to eat all nations, as long as Spielberg doesn’t actually scare children by showing them feast. Dahl’s shiver of cannibalism sold books — kids love ghouls — but this generation of Helicopter Parent Hollywood brightens the darkness. The BFG (voiced by new Oscar winner Mark Rylance) is a 30-foot mouse. He’s hunched and hushed, a librarian blown up as big as Godzilla. Sophie, the girl he kidnaps from her bedroom, isn’t scared of him for a second, even though the audience isn’t sure we’ll survive the lurching 3-D POV of their sprint to his home.

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Despite their size difference, brave Sophie seems almost as big as he is, especially when the other nine giants on his island crowd into his cabin to smash his wondergizmos and accuse him of hiding their human supper. A pack of skyscraper-size cannibals sharing a tot is as preposterous as the New England Patriots carving up a sardine. But her escapes are fun — she ducks under furniture and shimmies inside a slimy gourd — and what the plucky Sophie sheds in emotional nuance, she makes up for in gawky guts. It’s nice to see a girl heroine with a terrible haircut who, when given a heap of dresses to wear, picks a military jacket.

Sophie and the BFG settle into a relationship that’s part sibling and part pet, toggling between who’s in charge. She demands that he confront his bullies. He mentors her about the world of dreams. In a lovely sequence, he takes her to a meadow where fantasies flit like butterflies, captures them in a jar, and gently blows them up a human’s nostrils. These electric visions glow yellow and blue and red. Picture neon twisted up into any dream you can imagine: guitars, Ferris wheels, spidery nightmares. Spielberg’s waking dreams aren’t much different. He can imagine anything with pixels. Yet the animation needs more magic. It’s an awkward blend of realism and fantasy that should have just chosen to go full cartoon. Sophie seems to float in the BFG’s hand. Scenes are cluttered with details I longed to savor, like the quickest glimpse of a phone booth in the giant’s kitchen repurposed to store, what, enormous spatulas? In one gag, three Corgis skid across a floor propelled by glowing green flatulence. It got a big laugh, but the smiles come from simpler pleasures: a shot of Sophie’s cat sitting on her blanket, the BFG’s lonely ears tracking the girl like a flower soaking up sun. When he tells her he can detect the tiniest voices, from an insect to an alien, I swooned. We don’t have to see wonder to feel it.

Alas, Spielberg can’t fix The BFG’s strange second act, where Dahl has Sophie call in the army to combat the Bigger Mean Giants. It’s a story in which firepower triumphs over ingenuity, the kind of go-go militarism that makes sense for a book published the same year Margaret Thatcher smashed up the Falklands.

You don’t get good drama when your character simply tattles to the Queen. Clearly, Spielberg knows the best kids' movies make children their own heroes: Elliot can save E.T., two siblings can outwit raptors, Goonies never say die. He’s aware that the toughest lesson parents instill is that scared children must prove they can protect themselves. Otherwise, you raise people who cling to authority and fear strangers — close-mindedness that creates frightened adults who vote to kick out the Danes, Turks, and Greeks. That Brexit just arose out of the same impulses made this unbloodied, beautified The BFG send colder shivers down my spine, a chill that whistled over the lovely final image of the film: Sophie whispering hello to her giant friend from miles and miles away, comforted that Big Brother is listening.