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It's a surprise to find that Roald Dahl's "The BFG" wasn't always there in our collective childhoods.

This story about an orphan girl being spirited away by a big, friendly giant feels as if it has existed for a century, alongside "Alice in Wonderland" or "Peter Pan" or "Winnie the Pooh." But, no, Dahl published "The BFG" in 1982, which isn't that long ago for some of us.

If Dahl's book feels timeless the way those classics do, so does Steven Spielberg's luminous adaptation, also called "The BFG." This may be the most delightful fairy-tale movie Spielberg has made since "E.T.," which is fitting because it's also a reunion of Spielberg and "E.T." screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who died in November, and to whom this movie is dedicated).

Sophie, played by a delightful 11-year-old newcomer named Ruby Barnhill, lives in a London orphanage. She stays awake past the witching hour, which she calculates as 3 a.m., when all the city is silent — except for the thing lurking in the shadows outside.

That thing hears Sophie, too. He's a giant, and he "hears all the quiet whisperings of the world." The giant — performed with careworn grace by Mark Rylance, assisted by motion-capture animation — carries Sophie away to Giant Country, where he lives and where he collects all the dreams that he mixes for the "human beans" like her.

The Big Friendly Giant, or The BFG, turns out to be not so big. He's a runt next to the larger, not-so-friendly giants with names like Fleshlumpeater, Childchewer, Bonecruncher and Gizzardgulper. Sophie urges The BFG to stand up to these gigantic bullies and stop them from kidnapping more human children — even if it means seeking help from The Queen herself (Penelope Wilton, in a droll impersonation of Queen Elizabeth).

Spielberg and Mathison deftly capture the gently loopy tone of Dahl's story, particularly with the semi-invented language The BFG uses. Food isn't merely "yummy," it's "scrumdiddlyumptious" — particularly The BFG's favorite drink, Frobscottle, whose bubbles float downward in the bottle and create spectacular "whizpoppers" in the giant's digestive tract. (This may be the most whimsical fart joke ever told in a family-friendly movie.)

Meanwhile, Spielberg unleashes all the current special-effects technology to create The BFG's world, from the slimy snozzcumbers The BFG eats to the radiant tree that produces dreams. But the best effect is The BFG himself, as the character animation seems so perfectly attuned to Rylance's performance that it doesn't look like a computer-generated creation so much as a prosthetic makeup layer lightly applied to the actor's face.

Through it all, Spielberg balances Dahl's humorous whimsy with the melancholy of two lonely souls — Sophie and her giant — finding each other in the wee small hours. The result is that rare thing, a children's fable that can touch the child in everyone.

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'The BFG'

Roald Dahl's timeless fairy tale, of a giant and an orphan, gets a luminous treatment from Steven Spielberg.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, July 1.

Rating • PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor.

Running time • 117 minutes.