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The BFG Is Big, Friendly Family Fun

Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has been dogged by charges of sentimentality, but in recent years, even his most saccharine impulses have felt surprisingly heartfelt and convincing. Now pushing 70, the director—with a big assist from 84-year-old composer John Williams—gives The BFG the kind of authentic depth of feeling that is so often missing from today’s children’s entertainment. Whereas many family films deliver pre-packaged emotions that feel robotic and impersonal, Spielberg infuses this film with the disarming sensitivity that elevates his best movies about kids (E.T., Empire of the Sun). Completely invested in the ups and downs of his two protagonists, he delivers a lively entertainment—that also happens to be a rich meditation on loneliness and individuality.

However, The BFG is not the stuffy, tastefully predictable experience you’d expect from a 69-year-old filmmaker. In Roald Dahl, Spielberg has found an ideal creative partner, one that pushes the director’s rigid sensibility much further in the direction of irreverence, mischief, and inhibition. Toward the end of the film, there’s a sequence of scatological excess involving the Queen that succeeds, precisely because it’s so at odds with the restrained good taste of the monarchy—and Spielberg. (In fact, a case could be made that Spielberg is the movie industry equivalent of the Queen.) The director seems to share his characters’ embarrassment, heightening the comic impact. But even at its most absurd, The BFG is emotionally grounded, thanks in part to Spielberg’s unerring cinematic instincts.

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In a sense, The BFG forms an unofficial cinematic trilogy with previous Dahl adaptations The Witches and Matilda. All three follow lonely children in peril against monstrous, irrational adversaries. In this case, the child is Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan who strikes up a friendship with the big friendly title character (Mark Rylance, who recently won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies). The BFG is plagued by a gang of abusive giants, who pose a serious threat to the people of England. Desperate for backup, Sophie disregards the obvious security risks and brings her over-sized new buddy to Buckingham Palace.

To be fair, not everything in The BFG works. Like most Dahl villains, the film’s nasty giants are cartoonish, one-note, and too clueless to be perceived as a real threat, preventing the central drama from coming into focus. The film is also surprisingly light on action and adventure, which may frustrate spectacle seekers, but Spielberg is far more interested in the relationship between Sophie and The BFG.

In keeping with the director’s track record for getting great performances from child actors, Barnhill’s performance has charm and nuance to spare. Anything less and she would have been blown off the screen by Rylance’s unforgettable BFG. Butchering the English language to endearing effect, this character is a towering tribute to all kinds of qualities movies need more of: vulnerability, modesty, wit, and warmth. With all eyes on the BFG, we get the sense that his extreme individuality is both a gift and a curse. Judging from the film’s depth of feeling, Spielberg knows exactly how he feels.

The BFG arrives in theatres tomorrow. If you still don’t think it’s a big, friendly, giant deal, watch the trailer below.

INNERSPACE CLIPS