Steven Spielberg’s The BFG is a production remarkably lacking in ego or bombast, functioning primarily as a genuinely heartfelt palate cleanser for one of Hollywood’s specialists at masquerading grandness with a simulacrum of heart. Chronicling a burgeoning friendship between the titular Big Friendly Giant, played by Mark Rylance, and a young child Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan (because of course she is), Melissa Mathison’s screenplay dispels the necessity of grandeur and instead tucks us in with an intimate dream of pleasantly aimless friendship and camaraderie to keep the nightmares at bay. This is a reverie of a film, so lost in its own daydreams that it casually avoids demarcating a narrative for us, and although the title may suggest otherwise, the central appeal of Spielberg’s brew is that it is morsel-sized, in every respect.
Spielberg’s take on one of Roald Dahl’s most beloved stories is undeniably ripe for critique, avoiding as it does any semblance of Dahl’s trademark caustic verbal spice. But then, “The BFG” is the nicest of Dahl’s tales anyway, and although this mainstream update isn’t remotely desperate to imbue any shards of prickly wit within, the film retains enough of Dahl’s offhand thorniness and mischievous visual bedlam. The screenplay dispenses with the meet-cute (and upends it) early on when the giant grabs young Sophie through her bedroom window like the gaunt King Kong type he is, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Rick Carter (Spielberg’s fellow travelers, both) suffusing the giant in an aura of surreptitious mystique as the camera delights in suggesting glints of his physicality before revealing the whole. From there, even at its most unsettling, we’re in the company of a cheerfully giddy haunted house attraction more than a raucous adventure-thriller, which is a respite, if nothing else, from the unearned elephantiasis and solemn sobriety of the blockbuster machine in 2016.
A fable about loneliness and social outcasts, The BFG occupies realm of delicate wonder and near-sadness as the Giant and Sophie – who really doesn’t have any reason to return to the London from where she came – harvest fireflies and massage them into dream fragments for children as penance for the other giants and their child gobbling ways. Rylance’s titular character is a surprisingly solemn bedrock, a wounded soul given to loneliness whose tortured line delivery suggests him grasping onto syllables and word fragments in an attempt to mend them into sensible sentences so others can understand him. Spielberg’s reticent style here affords the film ample opportunity to linger and wane with the emotions and Rylance’s haunted expression as well as to wax rhapsodic about the wide-eyed awe and glee of inexhaustible cinematic dreaming.
Within, the film doesn’t strive for conflict so much as placid reflection. Even the villains aren’t so much menacing as odious and unmannered. There’s no skullduggery here, no narrative tricks to distract from the mesmerizing, if not exactly galvanically exciting, pull of the images themselves. By and large, The BFG lacks the ruthless momentum of Spielberg’s harried best works. But the restful, weary gliding movements across physical space and through magical biomes, locations afforded claptrap physicality by Carter’s production, are an oddly relaxing, off-handed respite from the ricocheting rattle of most summer blockbusters. More than anything, the film is a divine celebration of the magic of cinema from a director who may find kinship in the behemoth title character, a mythic social force for childhood memories and nostalgic good cheer much like the director himself.
Which is why the film probably strives for cheerful play over artificial, corrugated complication or stakes-raising; the beauty is all in the craft, rather than the content. Spielberg’s (or Kaminski’s) divine mastery of foreground-background contrast and pop-Wellesian deep-focus camera breathes three dimensional life into what might have otherwise been another indifferent lateral expanse of verdant, anonymous lifelessness. The BFG rescinds the offer to update or engorge the material by appending a superhero origin myth onto it (how could they, you ask? Ask the writers of Disney’s own The Jungle Book from earlier this year, a work casually awash in unearned grandeur). And in place of such narrative spice, we relax and imbibe with editor Michael Kahn’s relaxed editing rhythms, Joanna Johnston’s breathlessly shopworn costuming, and above all John William’s whimsical, wistful score.
All of it evokes a certain gorgeously classic, homey cinema craft. Even the Giant’s beer is home-brewed. Everyone involved wears the film with a casual ease and a gentle step rather than a booming roar, which is for the better, if not the best. Very little in The BFG aims for more than it achieves, which limits the film when all is said and done, but the sheer willingness of the piece to waste the day away and watch its own clouds is more a blessing than a curse. Four decades into his career, it would be easy for Spielberg’s evocation of cinematic image and sound to feel like calculated majesty more than genuine fascination with sensation and elegant perception. But The BFG is surprisingly convincing as a homespun chronicler of colors and shapes, including abstract ones which serve as visualized dreams in this film, ones Spielberg wisely doesn’t literalize by revealing the content that lies within. After all, we’re already watching a dream, so why do we need to know the dreams lurking within? The callous intellectual trap of Inception this is not.
As the time passes, one wants for a more expedient work, not so much because the languid pace of the early goings are desperately uncollected but because Spielberg indulges in questionable inclusions later on. Most of them involve explicit humor (as opposed to the general mood of non-specific playfulness, but not quite humor, in the first half of the film) and British politics that feel grafted in from a more serious, eventful motion picture. “Complex” themes, or a microwavable version of the same, have been the downfall of summer blockbusters for years now (mostly because these very blockbusters are only invested in the threat of complexity, rather than the real deal). This film is, unfortunately, no different, but when the dust clears at the end, the nonchalant, unconcerned majesty of the piece and its refusal to serve as a banner-carrying vanguard for the four horseman of the apocalypse is what lingers in the mind rather than the accidents of bigness the film occasionally suffers from.
So the missteps are there, and the film isn’t as wily and woolly or as anarchic as the best Dahl adaptations; Spielberg is a little too pleased with bottling up and smelling the film’s essential beauty to catalyze this beauty toward any purpose beyond its own resplendence. It’s too balanced to evoke the reckless imbalance of Dahl’s writing, the id to Dr. Seuss’ superego. But, if the film expends too much energy wasting away the time without conviction to accomplish anything more, it is curiously this exact shaggy hang-out vibe that deserves a tip of the hat more than anything else.