In 2011, I sat down at a screening for “Super 8” with baited breathe. I sat in the dark theater reminiscing on how Amblin films fueled my love of movies. Whether it was Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, E.T. or Men In Black, Amblin showed me the magic of movies long before I was allowed to see Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, or Schindler’s List. Fast forward to today, I was once again in that dark theater, eyes wide and heart racing for a taste of the same movie magic that I remember so fondly.
Spielberg’s “BFG” opens on a dark room, with our lead character, Sophie, musing about the witching hour. A dark room cast in moonlight looks a bit too ordinary; a perfect stage for the extraordinary to appear. Sophie, too, waits with baited breathe for an adventure that only Spielberg can deliver. Soon, Sophie is grabbed by a giant, who rushes home to Giant Country, and our adventure as the audience begins.
The movie contains many themes present throughout Spielberg’s work. There are adults that are incompetent and irresponsible; a child’s belief in something greater than themselves sways adults to their side; traveling to a different world makes the impossible possible. In many ways, “The B.F.G.” is the culmination of Spielberg’s work. However, to simply write off the film as a version of his previous work is a disservice to what he accomplishes here.
One of the more persistent thoughts I had as I thought about “The BFG” was the astonishment that Spielberg hadn’t attempted to direct a Roald Dahl adaptation before now. The two are so obviously a good fit, it is really a shame we are only now experience the partnership. Working from a text by an author like Dahl, it is easy to push elements of his stories to the background. Much like Wes Anderson did on “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Spielberg wisely accepts the twisted logic and grotesque elements that are staples of Dahl’s work.
The grotesque elements are particularly well conceived, as they provide a gap between Giant Country and the “real” world. This also helps differentiate the giants, leaving little doubt that the gross giants are also the dangerous. More impressive is Spielberg’s choice to make a faithful adaptation of Dahl’s book, even down to its cartoonishly ridiculous elements.
Fresh off his Oscar win, Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) turns in an excellent performance as the titular character “BFG.” Motion capture is used to distort the face of Rylance, but there’s a glint in his eye that is unmistakably human. His soft features and rubber face give him an advantage as a motion capture performer, and this works well to give BFG nuance and subtly that is rarely seen in big budget spectacles. He also makes the most of his ridiculous dialogue, and his pleasant voice makes the weird dialect of the giant an enjoyable aspect of the film. Rylance will not be in consideration for an Oscar this time around, but it is an impressive motion capture performance from the veteran thespian.
Equally enjoyable is Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, who excels at interacting with BFG through moments of pain and joy. In many ways, Barnhill is able to fill a gap in Spielberg’s impressive career. She is a strong female presence in the film, and that has been missing for some time. Spielberg has been far more interested in building male centered narratives, but Sophie makes this story hers. It is her bravery that gives BFG the confidence to confront other giants. It is her intellect that pushes forward the story. Perhaps most importantly, it is Barnhill’s ability to react to the incredible world that surrounds her that gives the film life. Barnhill’s performance might be the best in an Amblin film in some time. She is strong, smart, and funny in ways that elevate the film throughout, making her the surprise MVP of the film.
Many other aspects of the film stick out to me as worthy of Oscar consideration. After watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that the visual effects and production design add to the execution of the film considerably. The visual effects in particular, with both Dream Country and the giants, transport the audience to the furthest reaches of Spielberg’s imagination. The unique vegetables and food that BFG makes are also well designed. The Snozzcumbers in particular were gag inducing.
The production design also does a marvelous job at bringing the hoarder elements of Giant country to life. The BFG’s home is filled with mismatching elements of the Human world. Each one giving away small secrets of how BFG is so different than his giant brethren. The attention to these details set the film apart from previous Dahl adaptations. Those elements also serve to help the relationship between BFG and Sophie grow. While BFG tries to make Sophie happy, it is his ultimate misunderstanding of the items he collects that informs us of his perceptions of the world around him.
While I enjoyed the movie, there are still some elements that didn’t quite work for me. I think one of the bigger culprits was editing. Some chapters of the film move slower than I would have liked. While the editing does an efficient job at telling the narrative, various parts of the film lacked in efficient pace, as compared to the rest of the movie. The scene that establishes the BFG’s relationship to the other giants is a bit childish at times. While it serves as a fun set piece, it takes you out of the flow of the film and delays the truly excellent moments that follow.
It’s rare to watch a director return to a genre that defined him. While Spielberg has been touted as a “serious” director since the mid-80s, it was his childlike approach to awe inspiring moments that have always defined his career. As the lights kicked on in the theater, I was reminded that there might not be a better storyteller than Spielberg in the history of cinema. Some may dismiss the film as weak and unnecessary, but I would take a Spielberg directed “BFG” over 5 “Bridge of Spies.” With “The BFG” Spielberg reminds us that the pursuit of dreams will come with heartache, laughter, and truly marvelous adventures.