Can Steven Spielberg do comedy? That seems like a dumb question, since nobody has done more to bring wit to the modern blockbuster; Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws boast as many laugh-out-loud moments as they do thrills. But those gags are often incidental, of the tension-breaking kind. When the director tries for outright comedy (see also: 1941, The Terminal, much of Hook), he usually falls flat. Humor for him works as a means, not as an end.
Spielberg’s film of Roald Dahl’s creepy children’s story The BFG, adapted by the late Melissa Mathison (who also wrote E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Martin Scorsese’s masterful Kundun), is not really a comedy, until, eventually, it is. It starts off in a mode that has always served Spielberg well. The director’s earlier films, even non-genre titles like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, were often informed by the language of horror — they were filled with jump scares and suspense scenes built around characters’ limited visions. And so, too, does The BFG open with menacing undertones, as a British orphan (Ruby Barnhill) one night witnesses a terrifying giant (Mark Rylance) wandering a dark alley. The giant abducts her, and Spielberg shoots their initial meeting with both dread and whimsy. For a moment, the movie is pure magic.
That soon dissipates, however. Spielberg’s film is quite faithful to Dahl’s original: The giant whisks the girl off to a magic land, where she discovers that he’s the sole friendly member of a whole race of giants — a kind and melancholy soul at the mercy of his bigger, man-eating brethren. Those who adore Dahl’s story and are horrified at the idea of anyone changing a word of it may well enjoy this heartfelt, respectful version. And there are certainly touching moments here and there: Rylance, who was the sad and silent soul of the director’s Bridge of Spies (and won an Oscar for it), speaks the giant’s lines in a wounded murmur that can be moving — particularly during some of his soliloquies, in which he speaks of hearing “the secret whisperings of the world.”
But much of the film suffers from the one thing that Spielberg films almost never suffer from: stasis. He’s made, essentially, a "hangout" movie, one in which we’re supposed to luxuriate in our time with the characters, but this isn’t a director who thrives on extended moments of just being, in the unpredictable give-and-take among people — or among people and giants, as it were.
You can sense his restlessness, too. He’s fascinated, as always, by objects — by the giant’s Rube Goldberg–like inventions and contraptions, and the creaky, brightly colored ornaments and potions in his little cave of wonders, where the film spends much of its first act. But when it comes to actual interactions between girl and giant, the energy dissipates. This is also why all those scenes with the Lost Boys fall stiff in Hook: Such filmmaking demands some spontaneity, but that’s not Spielberg’s thing — though he can sometimes surprise you, as with the boat-bonding sequences in Jaws.
The film seems meant to pick up when it moves on to Buckingham Palace and to an audience with the Queen, where we get some laughs — particularly in a set piece involving the giant having breakfast with the queen’s retinue, a scene punctuated by a series of massive farts (all straight out of Dahl). But Spielberg is an expert at offhand humor — throwaway lines, background slapstick, deadpan undercutting of suspense — and he’s on unsure footing with big comic sequences. He treats them like action scenes: They’re all buildup, anticipation and climax with little room left for unpredictability, charm or freedom. I waited to laugh, and I did — but more because it was expected, not because any of it genuinely surprised or delighted me. Kids may well dig The BFG, but for me, it was all anticipation of a different kind, leading to a massive letdown.