I’ve been hearing many complaints about The BFG. That it’s not as faithful to Roald Dahl’s original novel as it should be, that it removes too many of the darker, more ironic elements. The movie is too light, too sweet, not cohesive enough. The visual effects and animation look obviously fake. And, worst of all, that The BFG is “minor Spielberg.” I agree that the film could have used a bit more of a cohesive structure, that it would have made the film more classically entertaining, but, for once, being classically entertaining may not have been director Steven Spielberg’s goal, or, at least, not his only goal since, narratively and thematically, this may be Spielberg’s most experimental film to date.
Late one night, while taking her usual stroll through the orphanage where she lives and reading in her bed, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, adorable) spots a giant, the BFG (Mark Rylance, in his second great collaboration with Spielberg in less than a year), outside her window, skulking through the streets of London. The BFG spots Sophie as well and, in the interest of making sure she doesn’t alert anyone of his presence, kidnaps her and brings her to Giant Country. From there, the two must devise a plan to deal with the other giants who harass and bully the BFG (whom they call “Runt”), and enter the human world in order to kidnap and eat human children (and people are complaining that this movie isn’t dark enough). This involves going to the Queen of England and asking for the assistance of the Army, in an enjoyable, but oddly paced and structured sequence.
This type of narrative is mostly unprecedented for Spielberg, his only other foray into the fantasy genre being 1991’s Hook, but that’s a film most people, Spielberg included, would care to forget. But all this talk of plot and narrative is a bit beside the point since there really isn’t any of either. That brief synopsis I wrote above could almost serve as the film’s story treatment. This is partly to the film’s detriment, since Spielberg is at his best, or at least, most entertaining, when he’s dealing with very plot driven material, but it’s also what makes the film so interesting and easy to respect. It shows the master filmmaker abandoning his typical safety net and crafting a movie more dependent on character, image, sound and theme to be compelling.
And those themes are compelling. Besides some obvious kid friendly messages about standing up to bullies and appreciating curiosity, kindness, and intelligence over strength, there’s also an interesting exploration of what it means to be an artist and Spielberg turns his lens around on to himself to reveal his own feelings on his craft and how he sees himself. Spielberg’s films are also often called “dad movies” for their portraits of fatherhood, whether literal of metaphorical (compared to his friend Martin Scorsese, the great scrutinizer of destructive, patriarchal masculinity, Spielberg is the great valorizer of protective, constructive, paternal masculinity). The BFG himself does serve this fatherly function, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the director embrace the maternal in this film, depicting femininity as an equally constructive force for social and personal good, through Sophie, the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and Mary, the Queen’s maid (Rebecca Hall).
The film is of course rather idealistic and sentimental, but Speilberg’s sweetness is genuine, not saccharine. It comes from an honest moral viewpoint, not from a cloying, insecure desire to please his audience and make a profit, like imitators such as Zemeckis and Abrams. In fact, while watching The BFG I couldn’t help recalling J.J. Abrams quote about his thought process in crafting Star Wars: The Force Awakens: “That was the only requirement… The movie needed to be delightful.” I kept thinking of this because I find it ironic how infrequently Abrams succeeded with this in his film and how easily his idol Spielberg (who Abrams is clearly riffing on order to go for that “delightful” vibe) succeeds in delighting his audiences, film after film, almost intuitively. This isn’t exactly Spielberg’s most technically sophisticated film – he gets far too enamored by the animation and showing off his world – but there is a pure joy to his filmmaking here. He gets enthusiastic performances from his actors and while the animation is far from realistic, it’s beautiful and a joy to look at. Perhaps the CGI doesn’t mesh all that well with the live action elements, but it’s never distracting and their incongruities add to the film’s charm oddly enough.
So no, Spielberg has not made a faithful adaptation of a beloved children’s novel, he’s made his own film, fueled by his own sensibilities and imagination, which we are lucky to have in the American cinematic landscape. It is a bit overly sweet, but if more actual human beings –or “beans” as the giants call them – had a temperament more like this film’s, then the world probably be a much better place. And finally, “minor Spielberg?” Fine, it’s not his best. But don’t call it minor, because, in relation to the rest of his filmography, it might be one of the directors most daring and original films he’s done.