On paper, the trifecta of Steven Spielberg, the Walt Disney Company, and Roald Dahl was a powerful combination, but practically speaking at least one of those parts is not in the fine shape it used to be. Spielberg is a master, no question, but he’d have to reach back to Jurassic Park, maybe even Hook, to find the tools he was going to need to bring The BFG to the big screen. Could he do it? Could the man that made E.T. come back around 30 years after the fact and tell the story of another child that finds an unusual friend from another world?
The BFG, the movie, starts with Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan that wanders the halls after lights out at her London orphanage long after everyone else, including her caretaker, is asleep. While being awake at the witching hour, Sophie happens to look out the window as a group of stray cats knock over a garbage can. Sophie then sees a giant hand reach out around the corner and gently place it back. The giant, a nameless but friendly old gentleman (Mark Rylance) scoops up Sophie from her bed and takes her to Giant Country. Little human girls, you see, can’t be allowed to tell others that there are giants walking about.
Rylance has become Spielberg’s muse it seems, or at the very least he’s a collaborator par excellence for the director, first on Bridge of Spies, in the future on Ready Player One, and here in The BFG. If The BFG works for you, it’s because of Rylance, who’s overcomes the sometimes glitchy CG rendering to fill his character with such wonderful humanity. The BFG has warmth, charm, and humour, and you can practically see the twinkle in his eye as he goes about collecting dreams and living the quiet life of being a vegetarian giant. Rylance makes it all look too easy, and even though the BFG talks in a weird patois with variations like “veggie-terrible” and “straw-buckles”, he never uses it as a crutch or shorthand to imply his character as an “other.”
Rylance also gets great support from Barnhill in her first big movie role. She handles herself well even though she has to confront a great many challenges that adult actors with 50 times the experience have trouble with. She has to act in a full made-up world against a character that’s only realized after months and months of computer augmentation and she’s got to make it seem real for the audience, and to her credit, she does. The relationship between Sophie and the BFG is wonderfully touching, and finely acted, you truly believe they are friends, and you truly believe that they inhabit this world together.
As you may have guessed, there’s a “but” coming. The but is that in telling this tale, Spielberg was clearly reaching back to a purer time for himself as a storyteller. I recently re-watched E.T., and for the first time since I was a kid mind you, and it still has the power to make you misty in the final frame, and I say this as someone who hated E.T. as a kid. Strange then that I should have more of an appreciate for it now then when I was Elliot’s age, but there it is. I also re-watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a movie I only discovered as an adult, but like E.T., it’s final moments are utterly heartfelt as Roy Neary boards the alien ship to realize his destiny.
Famously, Spielberg observed a few years ago that if he made Close Encounters today then Roy wouldn’t have got on that ship, and that’s where we are with a Spielberg: A man who still has his famous optimism and wonder, but it’s been tempered with grim realities and pragmatism. Sophie’s dream, as collected by the BFG, is to have a big, happy, wonderful normal life, and not to continue experiencing the extraordinary circumstances she finds herself. This is about the halfway point of the film, as if Spielberg has accepted on Sophie’s behalf the idea that she’s not going to spend her days experiencing amazing new things with her impossible new friend. Old man Spielberg is telling the audience to grow up, it seems.
The pity is that the dream collecting scene is one of the movie’s most wonderful artistically and emotionally. It’s almost the only scene that features classic Spielberg, using nostalgic childhood memories of something mundane – collecting fireflies – and during it into something wondrous. That’s followed by another great scene where Sophie and the BFG deliver the dreams. The BFG describes one boy’s dream to Sophie and it’s at once so weird but average that it captures a real sense of what we dream on a regular basis. One gets the feeling that these are the scenes that let Spielberg be Spielberg, but he then recalled that there was the rest of the movie to put on either side of it.
But for all the emotional depth of the dream catchingsequence , Spielberg’s seems to have clinical detachment elsewhere. There’s a scene where the other giants, towering beasts that abuse and berate the BFG as a “runt”, trash his workspace and unleash all the dreams, and while this should have been heartbreaking, to see the BFG’s life’s work fall apart because of those bullies, it all seems rather distant. Indeed, Spielberg might have been able to message this idea of the other giants being bullies for the sake of bullying, which is a message that would have likely resonated with the kids watching, but the other giants, lead by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) are just pure villains, a problem meant to be dealt with because The BFG needed an antagonist.
Still, it’s hard to turn down The BFG entirely. Spielberg’s world building is marvellous, he clearly has a rapport with Rylance, and Sophie is a lovely and charming heroine in the Spielbergian tradition of kid heroes. The film never once lost my attention, and it’s so generous in letting Rylance and Barnhill build the friendship between the characters, you almost forget the dangers from the other giants, or the fact that the BFG basically kidnapped a girl in the middle of the night. (It should be noted that the movie seems set in the 80s, when “Stranger Danger” was in full effect, but the movie’s not terribly precise with its timing.) Having John Williams back with Spielberg was also a terrible comfort, from the first few notes of the score, you know who’s behind the baton in the orchestra pit, and all is right with the world.
Technical mastery isn’t The BFG’s problem though. The talent behind, and in front of, the camera isn’t either. The main problem is that the man directing it all just came off two films about the pain of acknowledging complexity in a time of bipolar antagonism, and he’s probably a little rusty at the simple idea of running away from it all and having an adventure. Perhaps after all this time, the director that wouldn’t grow up finally has, and he can’t quite find that kid inside anymore. I have a felling that the parents will enjoy The BFG more than the kids, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s exactly where Spielberg’s supposed to be at this point in his career.