Steven Spielberg Crafts a Modern Classic in The BFG

The links between Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book The BFG and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial are so many that it’s fairly obvious that Spielberg considers his gorgeous new film adaptation of Dahl’s story to be at least a spiritual partner of his own earlier work. Dahl’s book was published in 1982, the same year E.T. came to theaters. Spielberg engaged the screenwriter of E.T., the late Melissa Mathison, to adapt Dahl’s work. They’re thematically similar, too: Both movies follow the adventures of a good-hearted child and a misunderstood visitor as they face down impossible odds. Both are charming, surprising and heartwarming in a way you don’t expect. And 10 minutes into both films, you know you’re looking at a classic.

The BFG is the quietly heroic story of an orphaned girl Sophie (12-year-old Ruby Barnhill), and the “Big Friendly Giant” of the title (a motion-capture character performed by Bridge of Spies’ Mark Rylance). They’re thrown together by chance one night as BFG makes his rounds in London (he’s a dream catcher and distributor). BFG takes Sophie back to Giant Country, where he ekes out an existence under the daily bullying of a group of much, much larger giants. To reveal more of the plot would be unfair, though its twists and turns aren’t that difficult to predict if you’re familiar with Dahl’s work. In his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, goodness is rewarded, evil rebuked; such a course is followed here, too.

By necessity, the two lead actors are the heart of the film, and Spielberg couldn’t have found better leads in a hundred years. Barnhill, whose big, expressive eyes do so much talking that Spielberg probably cut words from the script, is a thoroughly enchanting Sophie. The performance he gets from her is completely honest and genuine, especially considering that she probably gave most of it against green screens reacting to tennis balls on sticks. Spielberg, more than any other director working today, knows how to work with children, including when to simply get out of their way. Barnhill seems to know exactly where she’s going, and just goes there.

Rylance is something else, again. In my review of 2015’s Bridge of Spies, I described Rylance’s performance as “frail” but “steely,” and praised his “nobility and charm.” (I also predicted Rylance would win an Oscar for the role, which he did, but my prediction was cut for space. Ask my copy editor; he’ll tell you.) Rylance has a singular gift for conveying  gentle strength and philosophical soul. His BFG has some king-size character quirks, chief among them a twisted, Yoda-like way of expressing himself (he often begins sentences with “I is” or “You has,” and speaks largely in made-up words and malapropisms; kids will have a field day imitating him). But even if you were to take away everything that defines him—his birdlike head and huge ears (taken directly from Quentin Blake’s 1982 illustrations), even his towering stature—you’d still buy it. Rylance doesn’t just occupy this character; he rises to become him.

They’ve got a great company to play in, too. Jemaine Clement finds the right comic tone for The Fleshlumpeater, the slow-witted leader of the giants. Bill Hader, Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall do fine work, and Penelope Wilton gives us a Queen of England who never loses her cool or her dignity, even in the course of the longest, most perfectly executed fart joke ever committed to film. Trust me, it makes sense in context.

The BFG is a near-perfect meeting of two justly celebrated storytellers. Spielberg brings his visual wonder and big-hearted sentimentality to the story without losing the morality and poky pacing of Dahl’s story. (The latter could test the attention spans of modern audiences, but not every third act has to be wall-to-wall explosions.) I’ll be curious to see how audiences regard The BFG 10, 20 years from now. Something tells me it’ll work on ’em then, too.

The BFG (PG): ★★★