Steven Spielberg may be most well known for action, aliens, and war stories, but when he directs his talents toward family-friendly stories, he’s capable of conjuring real magic.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the greatest works in family cinema, ultimately getting nine Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Hook may not be as narratively tidy, but the visual realm Spielberg brought to life remains unforgettable. His latest, The BFG, is another such magically marvellous adventure.
Based on the beloved Roald Dahl story, The BFG follows Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a young girl in a London orphanage who always finds herself wide awake when the rest of the city is sleeping.
Early one morning, she spots a two-storey tall giant (Mark Rylance) lurking behind a streetlight outside. Panicking, the giant snatches Sophie up in her blanket and whisks her away with him to Giant Country.
The giant apologizes to Sophie for taking her, introducing himself as the Big, Friendly Giant. Sorry (and friendly) though he is, the BFG refuses to take her back, out of fear she’ll tell the world about the existence of giants.
Since she’ll be staying with him forever, he shows Sophie what he does. He crosses into another realm — “Dream Country,” he calls it — and catches dreams, which float about like fireflies. He then sneaks around London and spreads the good ones to sleeping children.
Sophie also learns of the real giants — the BFG is the runt of the litter — who eat children and spend their time beating each other up for brainless fun (when not throwing the pacifist BFG around like a football, literally ).
When the giants catch whiffs of Sophie and become obsessed with finding her (or suitable replacement children to eat, when they can’t), it’s up to Sophie and the BFG to find some way to protect the children of London from them.
In lesser hands, The BFG could have been just another Jack the Giant Slayer, The Spiderwick Chronicles, or Inkheart. Steven Spielberg, though, could pretty much forget to take the lens cap off and still create a good movie.
The visual worlds Spielberg puts to film here are his most wondrous in years, going back further than his Best-Picture nominated Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, and War Horse. The BFG is more reminiscent of the cinematic fun Spielberg had with The Adventure of Tintin and Minority Report, when you could feel his palpable excitement at getting a whole new sandbox in which to inventively play around.
Barnhill is a perfectly good Sophie, though she gives the weakest performance in the film. Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader, and a number of other actors have a lot of fun playing the nasty giants through motion-capture, but the true star of the picture is Mark Rylance.
Spielberg cast Rylance during their filming of Bridge of Spies, which went on to win Rylance an Oscar earlier this year. His performance as the BFG, despite digital assistance, is even stronger. Rylance gives a tremendously funny, painful, and affecting performance that bests the previous work of motion-capture pioneer Andy Serkis.
The screenplay is quite solid, despite seeming to initially take an odd turn in the final act, but that should come as no surprise: it was written by E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial scribe Melissa Mathison, who came out of retirement just for The BFG. It was worth the wait.
The BFG doesn’t have the poster appeal or built-in audience of something like Finding Dory or The Jungle Book, but it’s a much better movie. Its fate will likely be the same as family masterpieces like Hugo or, most appropriately, Spielberg’s own The Adventures of Tintin. That makes it no less a triumph, though, and only assures future kids will forever be discovering its wonders.
Or, in giant-speak, The BFG is a one phizz-whizzing ringbeller.