Roald Dahl's 1982 children's book The BFG is possibly the gentlest thing he ever wrote, with his characteristic dark humor and fantastic violence flickering on the margins but mostly left away from the plot. Even so, director Steven Spielberg and production company Walt Disney Pictures have endeavored to make it gentler still in their new film adaptation of the book, the second to be made (the 1989 animated feature made for British television surely has its points of merit, but animation that I was able to watch for more than five minutes without feeling a bit headachey is not among them). It is no real surprise that the combined talents of Spielberg and Disney would be devoted to making something sweet and comforting and almost totally devoid of dark shadings, and the good news is that The BFG isn't worse for the wear. There is something greatly appealing about a family movie this unflaggingly nice, more interested in crafting a soft, woolly mood of kindness and sleepy warmth than amping up the jokes and adventure.

At the same time, The BFG is so light and pleasant that it really can't help but come across as a particularly minor entry in Spielberg's directorial career, even by the curious standards of his work in the 21st Century. "Minor" does not mean "bad", mind you. It shares the key characteristic of every one of Spielberg's otherwise wholly unrelated films in the 2010s - The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies - which is an effortlessly perfect command of cinematic craft, as executed by a team of top-notch professionals who've long run out of things to prove, and who are rewarding themselves by experiment with classicism of a sort that feels completely out of step with the culture around them. Though like all of those movies other than Tintin, I can't shake the sense that The BFG is likelier to be around 30 years from now than a great many other 2016 releases that are more exciting and fresh. Certainly, this is not a film heavy on surprises: by now, anybody who has paying attention can guess exactly what happens when cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn, production designer Rick Carter (alongside CGI fantasyland specialist Robert Stromberg), costume designer Joanna Johnston, and of course composer John Wiliams work with Spielberg and each other. Other than Williams (whose cues for The BFG feel like a more openly sad, tuneless version of his iconic work in Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and it's his best score since Spielberg's Munich in 2005), none of these people are doing anything that haven't fully demonstrated an ability to do time and again. It cannot help but be the case that The BFG feels a bit safe and boring.

But still, "safe and boring" are one thing, "virtually without flaw" is another, and The BFG can be both. The film is a plot-light concoction, adapted by the late Melissa Mathison (who previously wrote E.T. for the director), in which a bright, depressed orphan girl in the early 1980s, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), accidentally catches the attention of a 24-foot-tall man made up of nothing but lanky appendages, the nameless Big Friendly Giant (Spielberg's new BFF Mark Rylance, in a motion-capture rig), who in a panic kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country. With nothing remotely pleasurable waiting for her back in England, Sophie quickly adjusts the new place, helping the BFG harvest the glowing, firefly-like creatures that create dream fragments. Once gathered, he crafts them into full dreams, which he then distributes to sleeping Londoners, which in his view is penance for all the crimes of child-eating giantkind against humanity. Eventually, Sophie is found out by the BFG's bloodthirsty neighbors, and it takes a crafty plot, calling in the assistance of the unnamed Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton), to combat their menace.

In practice, this mostly means lengthy scenes in which not much happens, but it happens in beautiful, magical spaces, which Spielberg and Kamiński's camera floats through via an inquisitive series of long-ish moving shots. It's the film that pays off the learning curve of The Adventures of Tintin, with a far more appealing mo-cap protagonist than anything in that movie, as well as freer, more involving virtual cinematography. This spatially-focused, languid form of storytelling certainly doesn't exploit Spielberg's best strengths as a director - he is good at whipping up a frenzy of inevitable momentum, whether the subject is rampaging dinosaurs or 19th Century political wrangling, and The BFG is interested in exactly the opposite - and while I wouldn't say that anything in the film's 117 minutes obviously presents itself to be cut out, it's not a running time that skips by unfelt.

Regardless, the film is a pleasant experience for the most part, with Mathison's screenplay presenting a lovely sense of whimsical sadness that's not quite what was in Dahl, but is more than tolerably close; Rylance's performance, moreover, amplifies a spirit of melancholy that wasn't quite in either the screenplay or the book. The tumbling wordplay of the BFG's dialogue, a mishmash of syllables that sound right despite being wrong, becomes a source of surprisingly tender introspection in Rylance's hand, as he takes the offhand concern the giant has with being incapable of communicating his feelings and thoughts, and turns it into the basis for the entire character. It's hardly one of the great character studies in the history of popcorn cinema, but there's a lot more in Rylance's performance of the BFG than there is on paper - it's very lovely and moving stuff.

The somber, though never downbeat tone of the movie's beginning, and its explosion of both Sophie and the BFG's different forms of isolation, can't quite survive the turn to adventuresome farce towards the end. The book, which doesn't has to depict things visually, can get away with a lot that the movie trips over; the intrusion of geopolitics feels much too "real" for the ethereal delicacy of the world-building in the early going, where even London felt more like a picture book fantasy than an actual city that has ever existed. The light comedy surrounding the Queen is even rougher: Spielberg has always been better with comic relief than actual comedy, and that hasn't really changed here; the best thing one can say about the corgis with explosive flatulence is that the director neither looks down upon the material, nor does he pander with it. Wilton's kiddie-friendly comic portrayal of Elizabeth II is fearlessly fluffy and charming, and I haven't been this impressed with a counter-intuitive casting choice in ages, but she's still stuck with nothing to do.

Regardless, it's the film's charms, not its shortcomings, that linger. I do not think that time will ever redeem The BFG as a late masterwork; but I also do not think that time will forget about it. This is an impressively calming, elegant children's movie, rich with feeling without getting caught up in having anything "to say" - which might be a strength or a weakness, depending on your perspective. It is far more nakedly sentimental than Dahl ever was, but in the hands of this team, that sentiment plays well enough, and Ryland and Barnhill wear the straightforward emotional journeys of their character like cozy pajamas. Would that all "minor" works were this confident in their quietude!