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2016 marks the centenary of author Roald Dahl’s birth, and Disney is celebrating with The BFG, the new film from Steven Spielberg. The final project by E. T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, this is the first Spielberg-directed film under the Disney label. The result is an exciting, heartfelt adventure with a genuine sense of sweetness and wonder.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is an orphan with a penchant for staying up too late. One evening, she meets the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), and is swept away in classic fairy tale fashion to Giant Country. She soon learns that the BFG is both a harvester of dreams and an absolute sweetheart. Not all giants are friendly, though, as Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and his gang of evil giants soon prove.
The film is a feast for the eyes, as expected, from the always-reliable London to the green hills and colored lights of Giant Country. The BFG echoes classics like Shane, The Quiet Man and The Sound of Music, with occasional stops in the more gothic territory of Val Lewton’s Cat People. There’s CGI, of course, but it’s better than expected, breathing life into the majestic visuals of Dahl’s novel.
It’s a sentimental journey, of course, but don’t expect something like A. I., where Spielberg over-schmaltzed a perfectly good Stanley Kubrick idea. Spielberg and Dahl are far closer in philosophy and tone. They’re so close, it’s easy to wonder why Spielberg hasn’t been adapting Dahl for decades now. He’s the perfect filmmaker for the job.
The actors are top notch, and sell the material believably. Stage actor Mark Rylance portrays the BFG with just the right balance of kindness and naivete. You’d take him home if you could. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.) He’s a giant, but he’s no monster. Those duties are fulfilled by Jemaine Clement, who serves as the perfect — ahem — heavy. Fans of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who will be delighted to see Penelope Wilton as the Queen, a role she portrays with dignity even during the silly parts. The film’s greatest find, however, might be young Ruby Barnhill as little Sophie, a brave, intelligent girl who won’t take no for an answer, even from a giant.
It’s been over two decades since Hook, Spielberg’s oft-maligned Peter Pan movie. It was a different kind of film for Spielberg, a fantasy adventure more like the Disney films he’d loved as a child than the violent action-adventures he’d been making. While Hook was viewed as a disaster at the time, The BFG delivers on that film’s promise. Spielberg, already a fine filmmaker, has accomplished the herculean task of making a good children’s film. Masterpieces like Schindler’s List are rare. A kids’ movie that doesn’t talk down to its audience is even rarer.
This isn’t a film by the Spielberg of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even E. T., really. This is the kind of film that needs a more seasoned director, one with more experience not just behind the camera, but at life in general. It’s also the perfect antidote to the cynical times we live in. The BFG is the best kind of children’s film, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
Photo Credit: Disney/Amblin