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There is an art to inspiring imagination. I know that because as a lifelong consumer of books, music, television, and movies, only a few have made lasting impressions. Only a few had me wanting to be in the story, believing it was real. It takes a careful attention to details that provides just enough setting and character to let the viewer become absorbed with room to put themselves. It’s surprising how few films can make this delicate combination work. Steven Spielberg has long been one of the finest craftsman in bringing imagination to the experience of watching his films. His children’s movies are recognized as some of the greatest ever made. With The BFG, an adaptation of the 1982 children’s book written by Roald Dahl, he shows a masterful return to form. This is a beautifully made, delightful children’s movie that is full of what we so often seek in film: a chance to believe in the unbelievable.
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is an orphan, her parents lost when she was a baby. She suffers from insomnia and roams the halls of the large orphanage at night with her pet cat. One evening, she quite accidentally sees a giant (Mark Rylance) in the shadows of the street below. The giant sees her, too. Feeling it necessary so she won’t tell the world, he snatches her from her bed and takes her away to the land of the giants. Frightened at first, especially as he seems to be preparing her as a meal, she soon learns he’s not a child-eating monster but a polite, kind, and very accommodating giant. A Big Friendly Giant. The only problem is, she must stay here with him forever. But maybe that’s not a problem.
His ‘job’ in the land of the giants is to collect dreams. But not like you think. The dreams live near a big many-limbed tree beside a pond that one must dive into to reach the other side. He catches them in a net and keeps them in jars like fireflies. Most are good dreams, but some are not. The BFG delivers these dreams to the humans as they sleep. He also explains that there are other giants. Nine of them and they are not like him. He is the only one of the others living here that don’t eat people, or ‘human beans’ as they call them. They are much bigger and more angry. One of them is a monstrous creature named Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) who becomes convinced that the older BFG is keeping a ‘bean’ with him. This leads The BFG to make a choice, but one that is not long lasting as the connection between the two are strong. They must find a way to stop the monsters.
Spielberg knows a thing or two about storytelling. His greatest achievements have always been in his ability to not only develop an interesting theme, but more importantly to nurture it. He constructs a foundation the viewer can identify with and then layers it with fantasy, conflict, and adventure. He makes the implausible, plausible. With The BFG, he has once again built fodder for young minds and old to draw into their imaginations.
Like many of the best children’s films, it takes a certain amount of letting go on the parts of the parents and adults watching. We forget the wonder of being a child and the need to be inspired. Fortunately, Spielberg has not and seems to have an uncanny link to what feeds best the wonder a child so happily craves. He’s got help of course. He has surrounded himself with some of the most creative people in the business to bring his visions to life. From the breathtaking cinematography of his usual partner Janusz Kaminski, to the music of John Williams, that at once feels familiar but ever so right as it harkens to the early days of the collaborative genius of he and Spielberg.
Much of the credit for why The BFG works so well though is owed to Rylance who in motion-capture, has created a character that grows on screen from the curious to the beloved. Wisely keeping much of Rylance’s naturally expressive face in the animation, the giant is a magical, inviting creation that compels us to stay with him. His mispronunciations and mangling of English words begin as feeling a bit forced, but actually become important, especially when you learn why. And that’s the real key to the way Spielberg makes The BFG work as well as it does. Little things matter. Take for instance the “Frobscottle” a carbonated drink where the bubbles go down. It causes the drinker to get the, well, farts, called a “whizzpopper” by the giants. This flatulence allows the drinker to boost into the air and soar on a green vaporous trail. In lesser hands, this would be where the film derails, but Spielberg knows better and makes it have meaning so when it does come time to be used, it works not only with great humor, but more so, a touch of warmth. This is only one of many instances where The BFG shines.
There is great joy in watching this world come alive, and again, Spielberg knows his audience. He lingers long on shots, letting young eyes explore the many fantastic images on screen. Little Ruby Barnhill is a perfect vessel on which to carry us through the enchantment, her often bespectacled eyes are always wide with wonder and curiosity. There’s no real menace to the story, the conflicts easily overcome and the dangers few. This is about a relationship of a young girl with no family and a giant who gives her one, himself finding something special in the trust and hope of a ‘bean’. There’s a moment early when Sophie is swept out of her bed, wrapped in her blanket and carried away. Her tiny face peers out of the folds as she watches the world she knows best disappear and a new, strange and colorful one take its place. It’s a long magnifienct shot that does more than bring Sophie to the giant’s home, it transports us as well. It’s a wonderful journey.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Melissa Mathison (screenplay), Roald Dahl (based on the book by)
Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall