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The BFG is a Spielberg spectacular

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Steven Spielberg’s bigscreen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved 1989 children’s book is a sight to behold, a technical marvel that retains the spirit of Dahl’s work and offers further proof, if any were needed, of the filmmaker’s vast talents.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie, a bright and inquisitive young orphan who spies the title character (Mark Rylance) one evening in London and embarks on the proverbial adventure of a lifetime when taken to his home. After some initial antagonism, the two become friends. The “Big Friendly Giant” is not the only giant around. There are others that are much bigger and much meaner, and Sophie helps The BFG defend himself against them.

The film marks the final work of screenwriter/associate producer Melissa Mathison, who earlier penned E.T. (1982) for Spielberg and to whom the film is dedicated, and as visually impressive as it is, the story never loses sight of its humanity.

Throughout his career, Spielberg has had a knack for casting youngsters – Cary Guffey in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Drew Barrymore in E.T., Heather O’Rourke in Poltergeist (1982), Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun (1987) – and Barnhill is a real treasure. There are other human characters in the film, played by Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, and Penelope Wilton (delightful as the Queen) – but the film really rests on Barnhill, whose screen debut is nothing short of smashing. A star truly is born.

Rylance, who won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), brings a lot of personality to the title role, and the other giants are voiced by the likes of Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader and Daniel Bacon. Spielberg had originally wanted Robin Williams to voice The BFG, but Rylance is no mere substitute. It’s a totally different role than the Soviet spy he played in BRIDGE OF SPIES, yet he’s equally persuasive here.

Motion-capture animation can be a tricky business. The technique didn’t quite work in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express (2004) or his 2009 version of A Christmas Carol, but here it works very well indeed. This is one case where the extra charge for the 3-D presentation is worth it.

To go from a “grown-up” film, Bridge of Spies, to the family fare for which he’s still best known, again showcases Spielberg’s effortless versatility. For all his success, we sometimes take him for granted. He’s still very much capable of making movie magic, as The BFG clearly attests. !

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