In "The BFG," the warped world of Roald Dahl intermittently peeks through the sterilizing influence of an army of special effects technicians, working under the guidance of Steven Spielberg, who directed from a script by the late Melissa Mathison ("E.T."). As the Big Friendly Giant, Mark Rylance—or in some scenes, what looks his face grafted onto animation—recites Dahl's malapropisms as fluidly as if they were Shakespeare, and he has a worthy foil in newcomer Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, the girl the BFG snatches from an orphanage one night and who quickly becomes his friend. But for those who have childhood memories of the book, and of the way Dahl introduced readers to Giant Country, the movie is a curiously joyless affair, made for those more partial to the hectic motion capture technology of Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" than to Dahl's coups of vocabulary and wicked sense of humor.
The last time Steven Spielberg turned up at Cannes, he was serving as the jury president; he made a bold choice for the Palme that year with "Blue Is the Warmest Color." Spielberg, who is simultaneously one of Hollywood's biggest hitmakers and one of its finest artists, has often had that dual characterization used against him by critics, as if he were somehow less engaged in the filmmaking process when he made "Jurassic Park" than he is when directing a "mature" movie like "Lincoln" or "Bridge of Spies." (My friend Justin Chang, newly installed as a critic at the Los Angeles Times, has already pointed out that "The BFG" includes the image of a girl in a red coat, perhaps Spielberg's way of drawing a connection with his own "Schindler's List.")
Even so, especially coming after two films rich in political and historical intrigue, "The BFG" feels like something Spielberg made on blockbuster autopilot. Only occasionally does it show the subtleties of lighting and staging that suggest it could be directed by Spielberg alone, as opposed to Peter Jackson or Joss Whedon lording over a monitor and saying "paint here, paint there." The paradox of movie technology is that the easier it becomes to use it, the cheaper its miracles feel. (Considering the possibilities, Giant Country looks especially bland.) And while the movie is said to have employed a groundbreaking combination of motion capture and sets—Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader, or at least their faces, appear in the roles of other giants—it makes one long for the days when Spielberg was forced to work around the availability of a mechanical shark.
That's not to say that "The BFG" is entirely impersonal. If "Catch Me if You Can" was, as Spielberg has said, an expression of how he felt as a young aspiring filmmaker sneaking onto the Universal backlot, you can sense an element of that mischief here. Sophie has a palpable sense of amazement at being one of the privileged few humans to discover the BFG's world of dream potions and fizzy beverages with downward-flowing bubbles. (Instead of burping, they cause "whizpopping.") And "The BFG" picks up considerably in its second half, not coincidentally when it adds humans to the picture, as Sophie and the BFG enlist the help of the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) in eradicating the threat of child-eating giants. There are also whizzpopping Corgis.
But compare "The BFG" to Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," which used 3-D technology to illuminate a cluttered, lived-in world full of gadgets and mysterious nooks and crannies, and "The BFG" can't help but feel under-imagined—a weightless, disposable movie from a director whose résumé has accustomed us to classics.