Minor Spielberg is still total magic. A number of articles have cropped up in the days since the release of The BFG crowing his end. We’ll ignore the fact that the man is coming off two films in a row being nominated for an Best Picture and that each of those earned an acting Oscar, and address more that I think something as short-sighted as a single failure does not begin to earn something as foolish as writing off that man.
Spielberg is one of the few working American directors who speaks cinema as a fluent language and who is allowed to make the films that he wants to make with little compromise (at least none detectable on the surface). He makes films about the things that he loves and he helps us to understand why he loves them too. Manipulative? Maybe. I’d like to say persuasive.
With The BFG, he’s turned it to some degree on the thing he’s spent his life doing, crafting dreams for people. He’s chosen to tell the story of The BFG (Mark Rylance), the smallest of the giants of Giant Country, and by far the kindest. We see him through the eyes of Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a precocious young orphan who’s snatched away to Giant Country when she sees the BFG traipsing through London one evening.
However, he is the Big Friendly Giant, and he has no designs on doing anything awful to the “human bean” (he speaks in a series of errant phrases). He spends his days catching and distributing dreams to the people of the world. Unfortunately, that occupation is not shared by his other giants, a gang of nine led by the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement). These mean giants are “maneating cannyables” who bully our poor, sweet BFG.
The BFG is in many ways a return for Spielberg, reuniting with his ET team to tell a story that runs along those same close-to-home fairytale lines, a story about aging and friendship told through an impossible best friend.
The BFG is however fortunate enough to have the imagination of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake behind it, being based on their book of the same name. This basis gives the film its unique visual identity, feeling quite unlike any fairy tale I’ve seen since the days of the Henson 80s. There’s no attempted realism, rather something legitimately storybook and cartoonish about their look, something deliberately clashing against the real world that we get a few glimpses of.
It helps too that every actor in this film is dialed just to the perfect point, substantive without ever leaning too deep into the darkness. Mark Rylance is pure magic as the BFG, conveying an absolute kindness and innocence that makes him finally standing up to his bullies all the more satisfying. Ruby Barnhill too continues Spielberg’s supernatural power to direct children, playing Sophie as a bright girl who never feels out of her depth as a hero.
This is undeniably, even for Spielberg, one of the sweetest films of the summer and the gentlest of the director’s career. It can be to this film’s detriment. It’s almost too sweet, a confection that disappears on the tongue just a little too soon. The friction, the fear, the impact this would have had to have to become among Spielberg’s classics just isn’t there. It’s a little glancing. Spielberg doesn’t seem to want to get too deep into much of this film. Why is Sophie so quick to grow to trust the BFG? It’s never particularly clear, because it would detract from the gentleness.
And while it’s been awhile since I’ve read The BFG, I have to wonder if Spielberg may be playing Dahl’s work just a little too unabashedly sincere. There’s room to build on top of and tell more to the story, but Spielberg is playing it with adoration and faithfulness, which means it feels as though there’s no particular filmmaking personality to it, even if the story itself has plenty.
I think all of the above is because this is unabashedly a children’s film, which there’s absolutely nothing wrong with. It means that it’s going to have difficulty going deep, but on the contrary, it’s a way to introduce Spielberg to a new generation. As simple as it is, it’s full of the magic that Spielberg is so capable of. Moments of wonder and awe, I think specifically of the sequence where we see BFG capture the dreams from where they live. It’s a scene I saw twice due to a projector error, and both times it really struck me just how beautiful it is. How much awe Spielberg makes you feel, whether young or old.
The BFG isn’t a new revelation, it’s a particularly strong Saturday afternoon dream. But it’s Spielberg, and even in those minor films, Spielberg finds a magic few can touch.