A deeply gifted technician, Steven Spielberg is a source of almost bottomless cinematic ingenuity. Whether it’s a marvel camera move or a perfectly balanced frame, his movies overflow with easy innovation, and audiences never forget they’re in the hands of someone with a near-otherworldly command of technique. His movies are almost inhuman in their calculated skill.
Of course, outsized talent can highlight outsized flaws; and if Spielberg has one, it’s his goopy sentimentality. His movies inevitably veer into the maudlin, as if their director was trying to ape something fundamentally human. Whenever Spielberg steers from spectacle, his mercenary impulses rear—for all their gloss, his movies lack a kind of shaggy sincerity.
That almost autistic tendency has been most glaring in his dud sense of humor: Spielberg has never been able to convincingly sell a joke. It may be the one talent that doesn’t come easily to him, and it hobbles his newest, The BFG, making or a trying experience. The story is based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl and requires that the director maintain an overstretched tone of gangly whimsy and preciousness. When a precocious, orphan moppet is nabbed by a big, friendly giant (the title is an acronym), she’s transported to a fantasy land where oversized elves sleep in galleon beds and dreams flicker like fireflies. Even toddlers might find it a little pedantic.
But Spielberg is enchanted by his creation. Playing with contrasting size, he delights in long stretches of goofiness and slapstick that pay off in two sequences: one in which the giant stealthily whisks through shadowy London streets and another where bigger, badder giants stampede his workshop. But those moments are too few in a movie that feels far longer than it should—it’s as ungainly as the giant himself.
And similarly, it’s not nearly as cute as it thinks it is. The giant speaks in a kind of Pidgin English (everything’s whizzpoppingly splendiferous) that grates more than delights; by the time the third act requires a farting Queen Elizabeth II and the entire Royal Army to intervene, The BFG has long worn out its welcome.
As it stands, The BFG is an odd creation. While one admires the impulse to conjure such unassumingly wide-eyed material, it’s tedious in a way contemporary Hollywood rarely is. Something’s missing here—something that’s been so easy for Spielberg throughout his career. Despite its maker’s way with chemistry, The BFG is pretty hollow magic.
The BFG. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Melissa Mathison. Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, and Jemaine Clement. Opens in Kansas City July 1, 2016.