Directed by Steven Spielberg
Opens July 1
Steven Spielberg, the most commercially successful director of all time, has said that one reason he wanted to direct The BFG was to check off a surprising box: Disney was the only remaining major studio he had never made a movie for. Old-school Disney was obviously a major influence formative on the director—recall the military man bawling at Dumbo way back in 1941—but his aesthetic grew up quite different, even (or especially) in his kid-safe movies. His most famous, E.T., has a suburban grit sometimes mistaken for sanitization or romanticization, and is more intensely personal than almost any live-action Disney production from Spielberg’s youth. It’s like a Disney movie playing inside the head of a kid who grew up on Disney movies. Returning to Spielberg’s corner for The BFG, which is about a little girl’s friendship with a large otherworldly creature rather than a little boy’s friendship with a small otherworldly creature, is the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who also wrote E.T.
The third corner of this awkward, fascinating triangle is children’s author Roald Dahl, who doesn’t seem especially compatible with either Spielberg or Disney—or maybe not movies at all. There have been good movies made of Dahl’s books, but so much of his talent comes through his language (especially the descriptions!), verbal wit, and narrative editorializing, not always breakneck plotting. The BFG is a particularly poor candidate for adaptation, a quality that Spielberg and Mathison have, endearingly, preserved. The movie opens on a fairy-tale-ish London, with painterly digital details replacing the sets and models of Hook (one of Spielberg’s only periodic returns to family filmmaking, along with his Tintin movie; the new film resembles both by certain turns), where lonely orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) accidentally catches a witching-hour glimpse of the visiting creature known as the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance and a bunch of animators). He snatches her up and takes her to Giant Country; they learn a little about each other’s lives, including the BFG’s abstract work as a harvester and distributor of dreams; and they attempt to protect each other, and the world’s children, from the gang of much bigger and much less friendly giants who find “human beans” delicious. That’s basically it.
The story, such as it is, lends itself well to magical effects shots of darting, brightly colored light (the dreams), verdant landscapes, and detailed CG giants. The digital capturing and tweaking of Rylance sounds like a map straight to the uncanny valley, but in most of the shots, the effect is oddly beguiling, with Rylance’s warm smile shining through the whimsical trickery. He masters the malapropism-heavy speech Dahl devised for this character; in some ways, the speech pattern is more enchanting heard than read. What the movie doesn’t have much room for is patented Spielberg set pieces, though he constructs a few almost idly, as if by prodigious habit. There’s a particularly ingenious scene where the bad giants tear apart the BFG’s dream lab, searching for Sophie, who ducks and darts out of the way as the virtual camera circles, bobs, and weaves. Most of the movie, though, has an unhurried calm; Spielberg’s one major alteration to Dahl tamps down the gory menace (which was often more described by the author than shown in the action, anyway). This is to his faster-paced kid movies as Bridge of Spies is to Saving Private Ryan: quieter, more relaxed.
Even with action hovering around Bridge of Spies levels, Spielberg, as he does in his historical procedurals, unleashes plenty of technical prowess. Sophie, the BFG, and the bad giants present three very different sizes of humanoid, and Spielberg doesn’t rely solely on effects to convey the shifting scales—or at least not on flashy ones. One shot frames Sophie behind a magnifying glass that enlarges her into the foreground, with a shrunken-looking BFG in the background. The BFG is big, but Sophie (engagingly played by Barnhill) doesn’t feel small; the film can feel thematically light at times, but it’s expert at evoking aspects of childhood even in the most fantastical contexts. Some of that comes from Dahl—the BFG’s non-human diet of snozzcumbers, for example, are like a child’s grotesque nightmare of what vegetables are like—but Spielberg has an instinctive understanding of how Dahl’s details might resonate to his audience.
And yes, Spielberg is playing to his audience, even as he subverts expectations about spectacular effects-driven family movies. It’s easy to see filmmaker parallels in the BFG himself, who catches dreams and purports to hear “all the secret whispers of the world”—it’s the director as towering yet avuncular demigod! The never-ending supply of Spielbergian light beams and fog don’t need to emanate from anywhere in particular; it’s all part of the vast dream machine fueled by children of the world, blah blah blah. Yet The BFG manages to repel any cynicism about possible delusions of grandeur with its sweet simplicity. Reflective, sometimes droll, often beautiful, without a big, noisy payoff, it doesn’t much resemble Disney pictures of old—or of new, for that matter. But it may be the most European movie Spielberg has ever made.