Director Steven Spielberg’s first film flying under the Disney banner, The BFG, is very much the work of an aging filmmaker. That isn’t meant as an insult.
On the contrary, The BFG is a mature, thoughtful, sweet, and subtly melancholic work of art. It pushes the boundaries of performance capture to new heights and relishes in Spielberg’s mastery of technical craft. But the film is also a children’s story based on the beloved novel by Roald Dahl, which it remains incredibly faithful to. And therein lies the rub: Spielberg’s approach to the material is reserved and contemplative, which may leave children in the audience feeling restless on what turns out to be a relatively subdued adventure. Instead of grand spectacle, Spielberg has created a rumination on the nature of our dreams and how they change at the moment we are forced to grow up.
It’s no coincidence that The BFG opens with a title card, which is a direct callback to Spielberg’s own E.T. The Extraterrestrial. In many ways the films are a mirror image of each other. They are both written with clarity and heart by the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison. They are both about abandonment and the innately human necessity of love and friendship. And they both are about the acceptance and understanding of the outsider, those who are different from ourselves. It is that bond that brave orphan Sophie and the BFG share which directly parallels that of Elliot and E.T. But where E.T. focused on the child as the protagonist, The BFG morphs into a story about the gentle giant himself and it is his transformation that pulls the heartstrings.
As played by Mark Rylance, the BFG is a timid creature whose wisdom and caring is garbled by the unorthodox speech tumbling from his mouth. He is the runt of his race (which have existed since the earth was formed) and as a result he is bullied and shunned by his fellow giants, who consider his vegetarian diet an insult to their kind. Never mind that all the giants used to be kind and gentle; now they feast on the blood of “human beans” with children being their prime delicacy. The BFG is scared and alone much the same way E.T. was, but it is through dreams that BFG finds joy as he collects and spreads them throughout London to children safely tucked in their beds. These dreams represent childhood innocence as they shield the dreamers from the true horrors and heartbreaks of the world. The BFG has experienced true loss and it is through this shared sense of tragedy that he and Sophie form their unbreakable bond. They are two lost souls united by love and understanding. While Sophie teaches the BFG how to stand up for himself, BFG teaches Sophie the importance of the evolution of our dreams.
Rylance is naturally charismatic in the title role and he imbues BFG with warmth and grace. His handling of the character’s bizarre syntax never feels forced and his interactions with Sophie are filled with nuance. Rylance brings more to the character than could ever have possibly been on the page, as he is able to give a lifetime of experience and weight to every line, no matter how strange. His mannerisms and expressions are heightened, yet grounded in the whimsical personality of the story. Combined with the efforts of Weta Digital’s astounding visual effects, Rylance is able to infuse wonder with sadness which results in a truly unique creation that is far more complex than the story probably requires.
It’s clear that Spielberg was much more attracted to the BFG as a character than he was to Sophie, who remains fairly one-note throughout even as she is winningly played by Ruby Barnhill. While Elliot in E.T. was a fully developed character who drove the plot forward, Sophie serves her plot function while doing little else. We don’t come to know much about her life other than that she has lost both of her parents, but thanks to the BFG we do come to care about the woman she has the potential to become. There seems to be a lot of Spielberg himself in the BFG and he uses the character as a means to reflect on the child he once was and the man he has grown into. (He has also discussed “dream delivery” as a metaphor for filmmaking itself.) If Spielberg had made this film 20 years ago the results may have been entirely different. This is especially evident in the film’s final act which is primed for an action-packed setpiece between the British military and the Giants, but Spielberg chooses to put a bow on it all too quickly. He is much more interested in the beating heart of the story, the friendship, rather than the theatrics surrounding it.
If The BFG has one major failing it is John Williams’ muted and entirely unmemorable score. Williams’ work with Spielberg of late has been more about mood and ambiance than melody. Some of the time that works, and fits Spielberg’s more observational direction, but it bombs entirely during the more otherworldly sequences such as Sophie’s kidnapping, or the luminous entrance into Dream Country. Thankfully Janusz Kaminski’s bright storybook cinematography does much of the magical heavy lifting and more than makes up for the lackluster score. It’s just a shame that such a crucial element (and the best aspect of E.T.) is missing in what is otherwise an exceptionally crafted film.
If this review has made The BFG seem deadly serious for a children’s film, fear not. The film has plenty of “frobscottle”, “whizpopping”, quirky humor, and other oddities to make children giggle in delight. But it’s two-hour running time will be trying for some youngsters who may not fully grasp the film’s themes and message. The BFG is very much a children’s story made for adults and as such it works as a marvelous companion piece (and spiritual sequel) to Mathison and Spielberg’s E.T. To see how much they have grown as artists, and how we in turn have changed as an audience, is an incredibly emotional experience. Spielberg and Mathison were always meant to tell this story together, and that it would be Mathison’s last makes it all the more special. It was because of E.T. that many of us learned to dream. The dreams haven’t died, but they have grown up.