Nobody can capture sentimentality on film quite like Steven Spielberg. The veteran filmmaker, a master of both spectacle-driven blockbusters and heart-wrenching character pieces, knows how to charm an audience unlike any other director working today. Sure, his later films have become unapologetically saccharine these days, much to their chagrin at times, but there’s always a twinkle in their eye and a bounce in their step, one that undoubtably comes from the filmmaker’s magical touch. Though far more unfortunately conventional these days than he was in his better, more advantageous years, there’s still has that wondrous inner child, that gleaming glimmer of hope and awe, shining through his films — which makes (almost) all of them impossible to resist, at least on some level. That’s what makes him the perfect candidate to bring a Roald Dahl book, specifically The BFG, to the big screen.
Dahl’s children novels typically translate well to film, mostly because they never lose the author’s signature absurdist otherworldly enchantment. Adaptations like Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (my favorite movie of all-time, by the way) balance Dahl’s active imagination and fantastical idealism, mixed with his overtly bleak sense of humor, to produce something everyone can enjoy, no matter their age. They’re often as bizarre as they are relatable, and as bombastic as they are typically sweet-hearted. The BFG is no different.
It centers around a precious young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan in London with a severe case of insomnia. Spending another night up late roaming the house and reading books, she notices something peculiar: there’s a large, shadowy figure (Mark Rylance) lurking around the streets, standing as tall as a building and sneaking his way throughout the empty town. It turns out, the mysterious giant notices the young girl as well and, worrying that she’ll spread the word on his fragile existence, snatches Sophie up and takes her to Giant Country, far from the comforts of her English town. Sophie fears the worst, knowing she’ll be gobbled by the imposing figure with just one bite. But that’s not the case, it seems. In fact, the giant is actually quite friendly, to the point where likes to be called The Big Friendly Giant, or The BFG.
There’s some resistance at first on Sophie’s end, but she learns to trust him more when she discovers the other giants, which are much bigger and far more menacing than her large newfound friend. And they do, in fact, eat little girls like Sophie, all in one terrifying gulp. The BFG is the runt of the litter, it’s apparent to see, and he’s treated as such by his peers. They berate him endlessly, bullying him and teasing him for his shorter stature and quirky day job, which is collecting dreams and either shelving them in jars or giving them to the local neighboring children, like Sophie. The BFG is tried of being picked on and wants to assert his own dominance, which he can do through Sophie’s help. Together, they’ll work together to put these no good, very bad meanies in their place, although they might need the help of a certain familiar face in order to make that happen.
The BFG is unquestionably Spielberg at his slightest. It’s hard to argue otherwise. His first Dahl adaptation simply doesn’t have the same staying power of his other, better films, and it also doesn’t captivate the charm his other, better films capitalize upon so effectively. But much like the titular giant, to assume it’s not worthy simply because it’s not as strong or as powerful as its peers is wrong headed. There’s a whimsical delight to this new movie, the first the director made with Disney, that’s not unlike Spielberg and Dahl’s finer hours. Always inspired, even if it’s often mild, and filled with visual enchantment from beginning-to-end, it’s nevertheless a strikingly beautiful piece of work, the kind of film that deserves a fair shake from those whom like this kind of oddball family adventure. It won’t become a classic, most likely, nor will it capture the same admiration other Dahl adaptions have for past few generations, but it’s still appealing and captivating in its gentleness, and a rousing achievement in its own right.
It’s worth noting that The BFG is the first collaboration in over thirty years between Spielberg and the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, ever since their segment in 1983’s ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie. Of course, their most notable collaboration together is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial, a film that shares more-than-a-few similarities with their latest. Both focus on unusual friendships between separate species, and where E.T. found the beauty between a bond shared between a lonely boy and a clumsy, if well-meaning, alien, The BFG also finds the lovely connection a lovable giant and an resourceful girl can find through the power of movies. Naturally, The BFG is not as smooth or timeless in its execution, but there’s that underlying sweet-natured spirit found between the two collaborators that’s simply irresistible. There’s a warmth and a sympathy for these characters that bleeds out endlessly, but never in a way that makes it feel desperate or overbearing. The charm comes naturally throughout, and it helps that the friendship shared between the two leads, much like in E.T., is made as believable and sincere as possible.
Rylance gives another great turn as the titular giant, continuing his winning streak with Spielberg since his Oscar-winning work in last year’s Bridge of Spies. Thanks to some astoundingly great special effects by WETA, you can see every little crevice, every little wrinkle in his large, emotive face, and you can also find every ounce of curiosity, affection, mindfulness and innocent joy shining through his ever-expressive eyes. But most of all, you can always feel the love and inviting kindness inside Rylance’s tender, contemplative performance, which might actually be even better than the one that gave him a golden statue. Barnhill holds her own as well, even if her own performance can seem a little too precious, much like Neel Sethi as Mowgli in The Jungle Book, but this is Rylance’s movie and he absolutely owns it. The BFG would be nothing if you didn’t connect with their relationship, of course, but his big-hearted work is what really brings in the magic. On a different note, however, Jemaine Clement is also great as the villainous Fleshlumpeater, if for entirely different reasons, and Penelope Wilton is also quite good in a role best left unspoiled, unless you read the book.
It’s been many moons since I’ve read Dahl’s source material. It’s been since third grade, in fact. But I’ve read enough Dahl books to know what matters most. From what I recollect, it follows the text fairly well, but more importantly, it captures the feel and the essence of his book — which includes its singing sense of self and its bright-eyed enchantment. There will be better Spielberg films, as there will be better Dahl adaptations. But what matter is whether or not they get it right, and I believe they very much do. The BFG isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s another good film from a masterful director working with a masterful pair of late writers, either again or for the very first time. It’s not going to sweep the awards season, nor is it going to make a big splash. Hell, it’s not even clear if it’s going to make its money back. But this giant tale has a big heart, and one that shines in its own small, little ways.