There's a lot of common ground between Steven Spielberg and Roald Dahl. Both incarnate aspects of childhood; the unrefined wonderment, the valorisation of innocence. And for long stretches, this mega-budget live-action adaptation seems like a great fit. Mark Rylance, as the titular Big Friendly Giant, provides much of the charm, playing his part with dignity and pathos, and there are lovely moments when he handles his young companion Sophie with clumsy care.
Ruby Barnhill's Sophie is endearing and gutsy in a non-specific way; she stands out in her stultifying orphanage, dreaming big, being brave. Be warned: this is Spielberg at the height of his more saccharine tendencies.
Here the commonality starts to unravel. Spielberg’s vision is childlike, but it contains none of the maliciousness of childhood – none of the essential nastiness that delights kids so much about Dahl’s work.
There's an instructive moment about halfway through when the film departs significantly for the first time from the source material. Spielberg introduces a new – albeit absent – character: a boy who had lived with the BFG until he was discovered and eaten by the other giants, elevating them from comedy villains to murderers.
Then he retreats to safer territory – the BFG and his young companion Sophie meet the Queen (him calling her ‘your majester’ in his garbled vernacular), and the film coasts along on a sea of fart and height gags. Without the ambivalence that lingers around the edges of Dahl's work, that gleeful darkness that flickers in the background, you're left with the charming surface but not enough of the soul, and that does the source material a real disservice.