It’s probably a cliché at this point to note that Steven Spielberg has become a victim of his own success but … well, there it is. We know that he’s capable of masterpieces, whether venturing into genre fare or exploring the Big Events of history. We’ve seen what it looks like when he applies his incomparable skills behind the camera to fascinating ideas or profound emotion. Everything else is held to that standard.
That’s particularly true when he’s taking on kid-oriented fare, which feels almost tragic in a world where The Angry Birds Movie is somehow given a pass as anything more than what a bird leaves on your windshield. His The Adventures of Tintin was brushed off as a busy diversion — and I raise my hand as guilty — even as it crafted breathtaking action set pieces filled with more pure cinema than you’ll find in 90 percent of family-friendly movies. The BFG may never be counted among Spielberg’s greatest triumphs, but it shouldn’t have to be, not when its own distinctive pleasures are right in front of you.
Working from a script by the late Melissa Mathison (E.T.), Spielberg sticks close to Roald Dahl’s story of orphaned British girl Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who, while up late one evening, spots from the orphanage window a huge figure prowling the streets. He turns out to be a giant who calls himself the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) — or BFG, in Sophie’s shorthand — and he whisks her away to his home in Giant Country. Though the vegetarian BFG means her no harm — and indeed, does his best to protect her — the other, flesh-eating giants like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) are other, more dangerous matters entirely.
There’s something uniquely mean-spirited about picking on a child performance, yet it’s hard to ignore that one of the main problems with The BFG is Barnhill. Spielberg has been phenomenal throughout his career at casting and directing young actors, but Barnhill brings a kind of generic precocious pluckiness that may work better on the page than it does on the big screen, in a movie that seems to need a core of loneliness that sparks her friendship. Considering how much of the story she’s required to carry, her work feels like something the film has to overcome, rather than something that adds to its charms.
Those charms, however, are ample. The BFG’s home is remarkable all on its own, glistening with the bottled dreams the BFG catches to distribute, and glowing with the cozy warmth of his fire. Spielberg builds wonderful visual jokes into the BFG’s attempts to remain hidden from the prying eyes of humans, and lends a magical quality to the existence of Giant Country as a world upside-down from our own. And when it’s time for the story to sneak in its action bits — whether it’s Sophie attempting to avoid the mean giants seeking her in the BFG’s home, or the climactic grand battle — there’s no one you’d rather have choreographing those near misses than Steven Spielberg.
Mostly, however, The BFG has Mark Rylance, whose performance here may be just as impressive (though in a different way) as his Oscar-winning work last year in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. The technical achievement of this motion-capture creation is certainly astonishing, and Mathison’s script gives him plenty of Dahl’s distinctive malapropisms to enliven his dialogue. But it’s Rylance the actor who gives the BFG his soul, as a gentle spirit who makes his connection with Sophie feel completely genuine.
It seems inevitable that The BFG will be scolded for its inclusion of an elaborate lunch with the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) in which the BFG’s home-brewed beverage causes an outbreak of powerful flatulence. Leaving aside that the sequence is taken directly from the source material — Dahl’s wicked sense of humor could stand to be more present, to cut the fantastical sweetness — the entire bit is rather irresistible. If you’re going for a fart joke to amuse the kiddies then, by heavens, you should go for a fart joke. That’s the kind of instinct to expect from one of the greatest filmmakers in history. Even when he’s just telling a kid story, we should stop taking him for granted.