Dismiss Spielberg at your own peril. Even the slightest Spielberg contains moments of pure cinematic wonder, and even the worst Spielberg is technically heads and shoulders above all comers. Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest directors who has ever lived, a filmmaker who effortlessly speaks in cinema, and dismissing his works - even the minor ones - is foolish.
The BFG is certainly a minor work. Adapting the novel by Roald Dahl with a script by the late Melissa Mathison, Spielberg finds himself at a crossroads of conventions, one where his awestruck style doesn’t quite cross over with Dahl’s loping looniness. It’s the film’s biggest weakness - instead of being able to find the tension between these two approaches The BFG ends up being a movie that lurches along in fits and starts, with some sequences filled with the blazing brilliance you hope for in a fantastical Spielberg film followed by uncharacteristically soporific moments where it all feels unmoored.
Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is Sophie, an unhappy orphan whose insomnia leads to her catching a glimpse of the titular BFG (Big Friendly Giant, you filthy-mouthed fokkers). That leads the BFG to snatch her up and take her away to the land of the giants, where it turns out he’s actually the smallest guy in town. The other giants - flesh eaters and idiots to a one - torment the BFG, who spends his days capturing dreams and giving them to people across the world. Together Sophie and the BFG must figure out how to stop the bigger giants from eating kids and also how to live in a world where they’re exceptionally sensitive to the pain of all those around them.
Mark Rylance is the BFG, brought to semi-cartoonish life through the magic of performance capture, and he’s remarkable. Delivering his Dahlisms with a Northern English accent (“Use your titchy little figglers!”) Rylance is charming and disarming. The script slowly brings you into his head, starting you off with a healthy mistrust of this giant dude who would kidnap a little girl and eventually allowing you to understand his crushing loneliness and his desperate need for connection. Rylance plays the BFG as truly heroic, ie someone without innate bravery who stands up for himself and his friends, no matter the consequences. In a film that is hit and miss, Rylance is always a complete hit.
Also a hit: Barnhill. The young actress has charisma to spare, and more than a little sass as well. Her Sophie is tough and smart, funny and caring, and I found Barnhill to be absolutely magnetic onscreen. Sophie is full of grit and purpose, and I love that she quickly goes from wanting to escape the BFG to wanting to be with him forever. She has the gumption of Empire of the Sun’s Jim mixed with the beautiful empathy of Elliot from ET. In many ways she’s the culmination of decades of Spielbergian child leads, and Barnhill might be among the most effortlessly natural child actors he’s worked with since Drew Barrymore.
The third star of The BFG is Weta, handling the FX; Weta has kept everything at a slightly cartoonish distance, opting to not make the BFG, his tormentors or the land of the giants too real. It gives the whole film a storybook quality, especially when the human Barnhill interacts with the CG elements. Everything feels so heightened that even scenes that take place on studio stages - like a massive (no pun intended) breakfast with the Queen of England - take on a hint of surreality. Visually this movie looks the way a child must interpret a children’s book - grounded in their own immediate reality but with a fanciful, fantastical tinge.
That the film is so unevenly paced is frustrating, but at the same time The BFG is filled with some of the best gentle sequences of Spielberg’s career. He’s not trying to outdo himself in setpieces in The BFG, but that allows him to find the heart in some of the scenes and bring it beating to the forefront. There is a wonderful set of sequences in the middle of the film where the BFG takes Sophie to the magical tree from which he harvests dreams, which flit about in a misty magical world like Technicolor fireflies, and then he remixes them and brings them to London, giving sleepers beautiful dreams to take them through the night. This feels like one of the most personal statements Spielberg has ever made, and he is present in both characters: he’s The BFG, the guy who has been doing this for years and who has a knack for mixing up the dream fireflies in just the right way, and he’s Sophie, who chases the fireflies through the night with a sense of overwhelming wonder and happiness. The BFG calls this his work, and it’s Spielberg’s work as well.
The movie takes a rather unconventional turn in the third act (one that I understand comes from the book), and I do with the absolute oddness of this turn had been present previously. The BFG perhaps has too much second act, and at times Spielberg is unsure how to bring that stuff to life. When the situation becomes wackier - when the Queen of England gets involved - Spielberg lets loose, and we get fart jokes galore (the first of his career, I think), childish lampooning of authority figures and a swooning wish fulfillment ending that still manages to be heartbreaking in all the best ways.
There’s too much beautiful and pure in The BFG to just wave it away. Spielberg is clearly taking great joy in playing with the modern performance capture technology, but unlike some of the other great filmmakers of our time who have gravitated to the machines over the years, he doesn’t let the tech get in the way of being touching. He works hard to find the emotional center in every scene, and with Weta seamlessly grafting the humanity of Mark Rylance onto the BFG, he often finds it.
The BFG is a film I want to revisit in a year or so; while the movie is very much about Spielberg himself as a storyteller and dreamweaver, there’s an intriguing melancholy at its heart, one that is so subtle you almost don’t notice it. It isn’t until the film’s melancholy ending that it all became clear, that there is something bitter in the sweetness of The BFG. I don’t want to spoil it for you before you see it, but I think this minor Spielberg holds more in it than the early dismissive reviews realized.