There's a secret about children that Steven Spielberg, Melissa Mathison and Roald Dahl have always known — that no matter how innocent, kids are as capable of understanding darkness as adults, and sometimes even more so. It's not that it's some completely unacknowledged truth, but it is one that rarely seems to permeate what we consider "children's entertainment" in any real way. It just makes adults too uncomfortable. It's also the reason why the under-10 set flocks to Dahl.
A measured embrace of the deep menace in Dahl's words is why this long-time-coming adaptation of his 1982 book "The BFG " not only succeeds, but shines. It's not just some pleasant romp into the world of giants. It's an honest-to-goodness, gut punch of a journey, crackling with heart, uncertainty, and overflowing with all-out wonder.
There's really no other way to tell a story about an orphan who is captured by a giant and taken to a land crawling with much larger giants who like the taste of human beings, or "beens" as they're called.
The orphan, Sophie, is played by the newcomer Ruby Barnhill. Sporting a Dorothy Hamill haircut and rounded glasses, this little brunette moppet is a delightful revelation who is at turns feisty, lovable and even a little annoying (in a good way). In other words, she's a believable kid — a result that Spielberg has been coaxing out of child actors since "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."
Thankfully, Sophie has been taken not by man-eaters, but the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, who was just in Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies"), who prefers to create dreams for the children of England, not snack on them. But Sophie, who lays awake night after night, saw him gliding through the streets of London and she can't be trusted with the knowledge that giants really do exist, no matter how pure her intentions.
Back in Giant Country, things don't get off to a great start between Sophie and the BFG either. It takes some trials, some scary dreams, some danger, and some skepticism before their friendship becomes real — but it's worth the build.
Whether you've read "The BFG" a thousand times, or haven't in 30 years, or even at all, Sophie and The BFG's impossible bond is bound to break your heart.
Rylance's BFG is an astonishing meld of real life and CG animation. It's jarring at first but kids won't mind, and adults will grow accustomed to it. Thankfully, it somehow stays clear of the uncanny valley. Most importantly, it fits in the context and look of this storybook world, which truly does feel like the page come to life.
There are certain limitations to the form that hinder the full range of a Rylance performance, but what's here is sufficient, even when he's flatulent — sorry, whizzpopping — or working his way through Dahl's twisty language.
The only real misstep is when the humans are introduced. Sophie has had enough with the bullying of the other giants and decides, as in the book, to go convince the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) and her assistants (Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall) to help save the children of England from certain death by giant.
The pacing of this segment goes haywire and feels like too long and meandering a diversion in what is already a long movie. Not to mention the fact that a significant portion of this sequence is devoted to whizzpoppers. It just makes you long to return to Giant Country, the BFG's gadget-filled home and the land of dreams.
There's a melancholy hanging over the film, too — that it's Mathison's final screenwriting credit. It's also a lovely exit for a woman who always knew to never write down to her audience, children or not. Mathison died last November of cancer at age 65.
"The BFG," a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor." Running time: 117 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr