We really take Steven Spielberg for granted these days. We’re quick to praise a filmmaker for emulating his style, but when the man himself releases a film, the fanfare you’d expect simply isn’t there anymore. I guess that’s what happens when you keep releasing great film after great film, the surprise factor is gone. But it doesn’t seem to bother Spielberg, who has been keeping himself busy not just with directing, but his producing work as well. And the man is already filming his next project, the adaptation of the bestselling novel, Ready Player One. In the meantime, we have been treated with the latest film from Spielberg (in his first collaboration with Disney no less, talk about deadly combo), The BFG, based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name. However, what makes this film extra special is that it is the final film written by Melissa Mathison before her unfortunate death in late 2015, a name you might not know by heart, but likely had a profound impact on your childhood with her screenplay for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
Well, shocker everybody, The BFG is pretty fantastic. Though, it’s great in a way that you don’t fully expect. Films aimed at children have evolved to a point where they can appeal far broader than they used to, while also being incredible works of storytelling, engaging in deep and thoughtful ways. The BFG is not this ambitious, it’s no Inside Out or The LEGO Movie. The BFG offers a type of simplicity that is rarely found nowadays. I should make it clear that I haven’t read the book, so I can’t talk much in terms of adaptation.
The BFG is like the cinematic equivalent of a bedtime story, it’s warm, cozy, a bit meandering, but utterly sincere, with plenty of charm to spare. It’s not really trying to be the kind of children’s film that feels the need to transcend the expectations of the target audience. It is so confident in its world, its characters, its delivery and in its craft to satisfy without feeling self conscious in the fact that there really isn’t much of a story here. However, I can see that being the big takeaway for a lot of people, as great as it is, there isn’t a lot to it. We meet Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), she sees a giant and gets taken by him. She calls him the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), they hang out a bit and then they decide to deal with the even bigger giants who constantly bully BFG. That’s really it, and the whole plan to stop the other giants doesn’t really come in until late in the final act, in which the film makes one of the stranger turns I’ve seen all year (and this is from someone who just saw The Neon Demon a week ago).
It’s a testament to Spielberg as a filmmaker as well as Mathison’s skills as a writer that they’re able to take something that doesn’t offer a whole lot in terms of depth, but still make the most of it in such a cinematic way. The first two-thirds of the film is a Miyazaki-esque experience, full of atmosphere, awe and wonder. Classic Spielberg in every way. It is mostly just Sophie and BFG bouncing off each other as he shows her giant country and the way he literally creates and gives dreams. It wasn’t until about an hour in that I realized not much has happened, but I was so swept up in each moment, as if I was right there with Sophie, discovering every fascinating detail just like she is. The film does a spectacular job at capturing that childlike sense of curiosity, and a lot of it comes through Ruby Barnhill’s fantastic performance (easily one of the best child performances in a Spielberg film). At first it was strange because it seemed like she was basically manufactured in a factory to evoke every single Spielberg-child-character idiosyncrasy, but I’ll be damned if she doesn’t sell every line and emotion like a champ. And of course, Mark Rylance is stellar as the titular character, beautifully captured through some breathtaking motion capture work. He is instantly likable and profoundly sympathetic. He effortlessly transcends being a walking caricature of cartoonish quirks and becomes a fully realized character.
As soon as the film enters the final act, you are given a rather striking reminder that you are in fact watching a film meant for young children. It begins to operate on their emotional logic and (without spoiling) it takes the plot into a direction that I simply did not see coming. It was ridiculous, but at that point, I was so won over by everything that came before that I simply went with it. It may be a tougher ask for others, and may very well be the reason for some of the underwhelming reactions to the film, but for the kind of film this is, and the very specific style of storytelling it’s going for, I thought it worked.
I’m not going to try and claim that The BFG is a new all-time classic from Spielberg, but really, who cares? Why should that matter? Why not see each film for what it’s trying to reach? The BFG is an excellent family film, and one that, despite the loose structure and wonky pacing, offers a gorgeous, relaxing and practically soul cleansing experience, which perfectly captures everything about being a scared, little kid in a big, strange world. It’s expertly crafted, beautifully realized, and endearingly performed (and do I even need to mention how wonderful John Williams’ music is). I try my best not use the phrase “I had a smile on my face the entire time” in my reviews because it’s one of those bullshit phrases that rarely holds water since most movies want you to feel more than just happiness, but The BFG is one of those rare films that literally had me smiling for 100% of its running time. It’s pure cinematic joy, with a sense of purity that is earned, and like with most of Spielberg’s work, it all feels so effortless. Oh, and kudos to Spielberg for actually making me laugh at a fart joke for the first time in years. 90/100