The BFG (2016) by Steven Spielberg
Review by Zach Dennis
It is easy to dismiss a lot of the work by director Steven Spielberg due to his vast and expansive resume, but that shouldn’t dispel the notion that he is working at a high level each time out. His last effort, Bridge of Spies, was a nice reminder that even when one of his films can appear to be re-visited territory, it still inspires and wonders due to the tactful skill of the man behind the camera and the people behind him that help to usher in yet another successful picture.
Much like Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s latest, The BFG, feels like a movie that would’ve been butchered and lazy in another person’s hands. But once it was taken over by a master, there is enough magic and splendor to entertain even while parts of the film don’t exactly fit into place.
Adapted from the Roald Dahl book of the same name, the film opens with Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), who is awake during “the witching hour” at a London orphanage. As she hurries back to her bed to enjoy a book, she hears a noise outside and notices a large shadow overtaking the streets. The shadow is a giant (Mark Rylance) — who enjoys being referred to as The BFG (or Big Friendly Giant) — and because he was seen, he must whisk Sophie off to “Giant Country” because she knows too much.
Written by the late Melissa Mathison, who also wrote E.T. for Spielberg, The BFG has moments that feel straight out of the director’s 80s and early 90s canon with a lovely score from longtime contributor John Williams that seems most reminiscent of his contributions to the Harry Potter films with its focus on woodwinds and gliding strings to create the air of mysticism.
This mysticism is what The BFG leans on for most of its first two acts where Sophie and the BFG start to work out their friendship and explore his job — capturing and dispersing dreams for the people of London. In this way, The BFG works as almost a parallel for what Spielberg has been doing for years as a director — most notably with E.T., Hook, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park.
In this sense, The BFG is Spielberg reflecting on the movies that resonates most with the public at that point in time and reckons with what it takes to be the creator of dreams and ideas that become paramount for others. The BFG shows Sophie how he mixes and chases these dreams, reminding us of the creative process not just in film, but anything artistic or inspiring.
While it may have a cliched central message of helping the main child character to break out of their shell, The BFG carries a much more nuanced and inspiring message of promotion of creativity that can’t always be found in movies as large as this one. Sophie finds inspiration and purpose through watching the BFG work with the dreams — something she has always found to be a disconnect between her and other people due to her insomnia — and this lights a fire in her belly that wasn’t already there.
The first two acts of the film seem to drag, but as a Spielberg fan, they worked as both a testament to the films that defined his career, the process that he goes through to create them, and also a reminder of the technical mastery that he carries over most other directors. These acts are guided by such playful and masterful directing that it is a wonder that Spielberg hasn’t carried home more awards for his recent work.
In one sequence later in the film, he implements one of his famous hidden one-take shots as Sophie attempts to scurry and hide from a set of giants looking to eat her (played by Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader among others). The camera weaves between the tree, the giants, and the different set pieces in such a fluid way that the action seems both effortless yet extremely proficient and advanced.
A lot of what was established in the first two acts turn on their heads in the film’s final one as we take a 180 degree turn back into London and into a more slapstick nature. This portion is highly delightful and much more expressive than the portions set in Giant Country, allowing for the audience to engage with a more direct story than before.
The BFG is not near the upper echelon of Spielberg’s work, but it is yet another recent reminder of how talented he is as a director. It has echoes of the past and allows for more playful moments near the end — creating both one of the more enjoyable family films of the year and one that will surely be re-evaluated in later years as a hidden gem of the director’s canon.