Steven Spielberg is an indisputable master of producing and directing family cinema, with a keen eye toward recreating the storybook whimsy and natural wonder of childhood without coming across as patronizing or overly indulgent in romanticism. It’s a small wonder then that until now he hadn’t yet attempted an adaptation of the works of Roald Dahl, a children’s author who embraced dark themes such as death, kidnapping, and a perverse sense of just punishment, yet remained grounded through the relative naivete of his child protagonists. (I guess Tim Burton had called dibs.) The union of the two has finally emerged in Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG, and the resulting film is exactly what you would expect from one of the most naturally gifted directors of all time.
One night, at the orphanage she calls home, Sophie sees a mysterious figure out her window, a giant wandering the streets of her city. Once the giant realizes he has been spotted, he grabs the girl and carries her away to Giant Country, where he insists that she must remain with him forever lest she reveal his existence to the world. The two slowly realize that the other isn’t quite so bad and discover a budding friendship between them, though Sophie’s life is threatened by the larger members of the giant’s species, whose preferred diet consists of human flesh.
The two lead performances are a perfect blend of casting and direction, with Ruby Barnhill, a relative unknown, delivering a fantastic performance against computer-generated surroundings while talking to an equally non-existent giant. She is immediately charming and relatable in an every-child sort of way, a suitable perspective character for the younger members of the audience. Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as the titular BFG is even more impressive, selling the uneducated, word-fumbling old creature with such genuineness that he makes the giant’s ersatz English dialect endearing rather than obnoxious.
And that’s precisely Spielberg’s greatest strength: he is so in tune to what audiences respond to that he can make loveable what other directors would tonally confuse. Even though the film is largely rendered in digital space, the virtual camera swings around to take advantage of the unreality without ever becoming disorienting or overwhelming. The visuals of the film are distinct and unique—between Warcraft’s orcs and this film’s giants, this is a groundbreaking year for digital character work—but there’s still room for small, personal touches rendered in the background and the occasional practical effect so that the world and its characters don’t slip into the uncanny valley. Even the film’s sense of humor is strangely endearing despite itself; there is an extended scene that is built around what amounts to a fart joke, yet the pay-off is so well timed and executed that it’s easily the funniest scene of the film.
What Spielberg is best at, though, is finding the heart of a project, and the friendship that blooms between Sophie and The BFG is about as endearing as they come. It ultimately doesn’t matter that the film has some second act pacing problems or that its climax feels relatively slapdash in spite of the build-up to it. The heart of the film rests with our two leads, watching them subtly grow up in their own ways. Though its pacing problems prevent it from approaching the classic status of films like E.T. or The Goonies, The BFG is an effortlessly enjoyable movie from a director so effortlessly good at his craft that he blows his competition out of the water.