I watched Steven Spielberg’s The BFG enchanted, amused, thrilled, awed, and with a full heart. It reminded me of how I felt the first time I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001, witnessing a fantasy brought to life so convincingly, and so entertainingly. But The BFG does more than that; it makes it okay to feel and easy to empathize. It stirs emotions that we pretend to outgrow but really just allow to go dormant – feelings of longing, of loneliness, of being different, of seeming small in a big world. It represents the side of Spielberg that remembers not just the wonder and the excitement of being a child, but also the uncertainty, the awkwardness, and yes, even the sadness.
I haven’t read the Roald Dahl book on which the film is based, but I could easily recognize all of Dahl’s trademarks: The disadvantaged child with lovable eccentricities; the adventure into a peculiar world that’s simultaneously welcoming and dangerous, and infinitely more interesting than the humdrum of our world; the Seussian-like attention to language, with words that are either bastardized from English or made up entirely. And with the exception of the funniest wind-breaking sequence since 1996’s The Nutty Professor (some things you just never mature out of, try as you might), the story shows respect to younger audiences by acknowledging, without being sensationalistic, that unpleasant things can and do happen.
But the film is also undeniably Spielberg. Like his own E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – written, along with The BFG, by the late Melissa Mathison – it tells a touching story of friendship between a child and an inhuman creature, and it’s their quirks and mutual feelings of isolation and being misunderstood that enable them to bond. The child is Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a London orphan who uses her insomnia to pick up the slack for the orphanage’s incompetent headmistress. The unnamed creature is a twenty-plus-foot giant (Mark Rylance in motion capture), who makes nightly visits from Giant Country to the city and uses an ornate horn to gently blow dreams into the heads of sleeping children. Because Sophie accidentally caught him, he takes her back to his home, which involves a leaping trek across the entirety of the U.K. and a portal in the clouds.
In Giant Country, a world of lush green pastures and majestic mountains, it’s quickly established that the giant – whom Sophie eventually dubs the Big Friendly Giant, or the BFG – is an outcast amongst his own kind, all nine of them. He doesn’t like eating humans. He sleeps in a cave dwelling rather than snore outdoors on the grass. He dresses in modest yet normal clothes, refusing to look primitive. Though huge by human standards, he’s a runt compared to the other giants. And he actually busies himself collecting and mixing different dreams in a hidden laboratory filled with jars. Because he’s so different, he’s regularly bullied by the nine other giants, the leader of which is a hulking troll named Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, also in motion capture).
Fleshlumpeater, little more than a Neanderthal, has a very keen sense of smell, which is to say he knows that the BFG is hiding a human being – or, as they’re called in Giant Country, a “bean.” The BFG has had “beans” before, and he has lost all of them. One loss, as Sophie will eventually learn, weighs on him heavily. The threat to Sophie’s life soon extends to England, where children have been disappearing; it’s up to Sophie, the BFG, and none other than Queen Elizabeth II (Elizabeth Wilton) to mastermind a counterattack against the nine giants. It might seem like a ridiculous subplot, and indeed it is. In fact, it’s so ridiculous that Spielberg and Mathison deserve credit for having the guts to not make it seem less so.
There are several sequences of astounding visual creativity – the BFG’s dream laboratory, for instance, which looks good in 3D – but I was especially delighted by the scene of the BFG and Sophie entering the land of dreams, a perpetually starry nightscape; upon jumping into a pond upside down, you enter a reflection of this world, where dreams form on the leaves of a mighty tree and flit about the trunk and branches. The dreams themselves, both good and bad, are fanciful, brilliant points of colored light that float and dart around like fireflies. It’s through this beautiful sequence we learn that the BFG, with his overly large ears, can hear the thoughts of everyone on earth. And just like the dreams, which can sometimes be nightmares, he hears both the positive and negative things.
Speaking of dreams, the film in no way cheats by having Sophie wake up at the end and realize that none of her adventure actually happened. However, given that dreams are prominent, and given what’s said, and when, and what’s shown, and where certain things take place, we’re left with some nagging doubts. It’s known that children who are lonely, neglected, and abused can sometimes cope by escaping into their own heads, inventing stories and people and places. Sophie could very well be in a place like that. Of course, she could also be talking to a real giant, and going to a real place called Giant Country, and trying to catch real dreams in jars, and having a real audience with the Queen of England. The genius of The BFG is that, either way you look at it, it works. What a wonderful movie.