The BFG Review: Spielberg’s Magic Modestly Meets Real Magic

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It’s been a long time since Steven Spielberg has tackled a fantasy as otherworldly as The BFG (Hook is the last one by my count). But while this film has some classic Spielberg elements, child stars, a sense of wonder, it feels more of the fantasy genre than of the library this filmmaker has built for himself, which is practically a genre of its own. That’s fine. It’s actually great to see one of Hollywood’s most legendary directors trying on a new hat this far into his career. He wears it well enough, but it’s hardly his most memorable style.
Based on the classic children’s book by Roald Dahl, we follow Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) as she enters a magical world of giants and dreams. She’s guided by the titular BFG (Mark Rylance, effortlessly proving his mass appeal), the only vegetarian of the ten living giants who spends his nights catching dreams and planting them in the heads of London’s populous. Naturally, the nine other, carnivorous giants present a problem for Sophie, who’s dangerously close to becoming their next meal.

Spielberg excels the most here in the setup and the world building. The BFG feels more like the early Harry Potter films than anything Spielberg has ever directed. Using the eyes of a child to explore this magical realm, accompanied by a playful score from John Williams, who scored the first three Potter films, gives it that enthusiastic young adult feel that starkly separates this film from more cynical adaptations, such as The Hunger Games. It does make one wonder, what if Spielberg had taken the reins on those early Potter films? Might we have been saved from the TV-film quality of Chris Columbus’ two entries?

In terms of special effects, The BFG is marvelous. The big friendly creature himself is rendered to near photorealistic quality. It’s becoming harder and harder to tell which shots Spielberg is using practical effects for and which he’s using CGI for, if not just the marriage of both to seamlessly weave them together. The action, on the other hand, is majorly lacking. The BFG struggles as it heads toward its climax due to some awkward tonal shifts. But once you get there, the whole thing is over and done with in barely the blink of an eye. This really has to be one of the weakest climaxes in the director’s spectacular catalogue.

Yet, the warm sense of fun and wonder that Spielberg perfected decades ago is still present for enough of the film that The BFG is hardly a failure. Just as Bridge of Spies felt like a more watered down historical film from the filmmaker, this one feels like a more watered down fantastical effort. Of course, even diluted, Spielberg barely has to try at this point to make a good film. But what an era of cinema we could be living in if he were still making them great. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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