Steven Spielberg Goes Big On Fantasy With Roald Dahl's 'BFG'
The trick to understanding the films of Steven Spielberg, as many have said, is that each is a fairytale. The doubleheader of Lincoln and Bridge of Spies may have sidelined the filmmaker away from spectacle toward a prestige style reminiscent of Otto Preminger, but both essentially told fantastic tales of democracy in action with results less imaginable in today's political climate. The lingering question watching Spielberg's return to straight fantasy—adapting Roald Dahl's The BFG—is whether the film is meant only for children. Has Spielberg snuck in his darker undercurrents?
While director of photography Janusz Kamiński still paints light and shadows with vibrant luminosity, the world inhabited by Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) carries an air of artifice to every surface outside her London orphanage. Before we have time to take in her world, a chance encounter with the eponymous "Big Friendly Giant" has her swept away. The giant—hiding from London's night strollers in a series of Chaplinesque poses—carries her off to a secret island in the south to his strange cottage where he concocts bad stew as well as magical dreams for children (while other giants hope only to consume such young beings).
The BFG's world continues Spielberg's interest in almost pure animation that began with The Adventures of Tintin, though the effects recall Piper (the Pixar short paired with Finding Dory). The hyper-realism comes off in the lucidity of water, the flow within each blade of grass, and wooden surfaces appearing with a unique texture at every pixel. But each image still holds a glossy sheen in which only Barnhill's Sophie seems to be lit naturally; she can explore this world but can never truly join it.
While the film is filled with spectacle, many of the best moments find Spielberg simply placing Sophie and her new companion in conversation in a room. Given the size differentiation, it allows for even more freedom to explore the character dynamics in a 360 space; the "camera" dollies not just left and right but up, down, and around his characters with imaginative looks. Spielberg is a rare filmmaker who understands the difference between moving a camera and choosing to cut. This doubles through Bridge of Spies Mark Rylance playing the motion-captured being, capturing the film's endless wordplay with a spirit of delightful glee, while the newcomer Barnhill brings both precociousness with just enough big-eyed looks to turn this digitally created world into something real.
Despite their obvious visual appeal, Dahl adaptations have not always translated well to cinema, perhaps because of their strangely episodic "and then this happened..." structure. Melissa Mathison, who also wrote E.T., has adapted Dahl's novel for the screen (and sadly passed away after completion of principal photography). Her voice is certainly apparent in Sophie's slow maturation, though often the film strays more toward a lighthearted comic tone. If E.T. climaxed as Young Elliot had to say goodbye to his presumably deceased friend, The BFG may be remembered for a climactic sequence involving British royalty and flatulence. That is not necessarily a problem, but it is strange how often BFG recalls some of Spielberg's most terrifying sequences—Jurassic Park's velociraptor kitchen hunt, War of the Worlds 9/11-inspired attack, and most oddly, Schindler's List's dead child in a red coat—in watered-down versions. That the film remains strangely passive to its occasional screen terror feels strangely tempered given the potential mining of difficult emotions it additionally elides, not to mention that its stiffly pro-British attitude with a distrust of immigrant populations and its use of Falklands War imagery makes for some quite odd viewing given current events.
And yet, Spielberg remains in a class of his own. Somehow watching his handling of CGI remains a pleasant experience even in the most bombastic of moments. Whether it's viewing a parade of giants reenact the Keystone Cops or Sophie traversing a field while following dazzling watercolored lights fly through the air, Spielberg's approach to blockbuster filmmaking has always felt touchingly personal. Even if The BFG is his fuzziest film in years, the spectacle on display shows a sharp hand.
The BFG opens everywhere tomorrow.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.