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The Independent Critic

Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Wilton
Steven Spielberg
Melissa Mathison, Roald Dahl (Novel)
Rated PG
117 Mins.
Walt Disney Studios

 "The BFG" Brings Spielberg Back to Family Films 

It's a pity that The BFG is a $140 million film, because it's hard to imagine this gently paced family film approaching the kind of blockbuster box-office it will need to be considered a success by Hollywood's standards.

Tis' a pity. Really, because The BFG is a success in every way that matters and, perhaps, most importantly because it reminds me of those days when I would watch a Steven Spielberg film and think to myself "This is a man who believes in the power of cinema."

Then, IT happened. Spielberg became an "important" director. An icon, really. It seems like Spielberg's last few films have been spent trying to live up to that icon status. Oh sure, Spielberg has made some mightly masterful films. He's made Oscar-worthy films. Heck, without having made Bridge of Spies we wouldn't have the masterful Mark Rylance in this role and in this film.

So, I suppose, on some level I must be grateful for Spielberg the icon.

But, I missed this Spielberg.

I missed the Spielberg who made magical films for parents and children that may have not been perfect films but, indeed, they were magical and insightful and emotionally honest and simply a joy to behold.

The BFG is one of them. Based upon the edgier and more focused source material provided by Roald Dahl, The BFG reminds me of early Spielberg and reminds me of why I used to eagerly anticipate his next film.

Because I knew that I would identify. I knew that I would resonate. I knew that somehow Spielberg would tape into my childhood and my experiences and my longing. I love "important" Steven Spielberg. He IS an icon of contemporary cinema. But this Spielberg? Indeed, my spirit dances.

My fear is that The BFG will be considered a failure because, quite honestly, I expect it to go the way of so many fine, intelligent and dignified British family films that attract only modest box-office in the U.S. despite their critical acclaim and despite their being respectful of our children and families. I don't begrudge America's embrace of Finding Dory, but I can only hope it will find room in its cinematic heart for this lovely and magical film that draws you in and envelopes you in an entirely different way. 

Ten years ago, The BFG would have been a far more manic creature likely played by someone like Robin Williams. It might have been a more market-friendly performance, yet I can't fathom it being any more satisfying than Rylance's entirely honest, joyful, soulful and simply magical turn as this here Big Friendly Giant. Rylance, an acclaimed stage actor before his Oscar-winning turn in Bridge of Spies, gives The BFG a clumsy warmth and physical befuddlement and a twinkle, oh my, what a twinkle.

Everything that feels random in The BFG isn't random at all. The BFG, who lives in Giant Country far away from his London stomping grounds, is a dream catcher and a dream spreader by trade, though this isn't simply some random fantastical job but one borne out of his own sense of guilt over the actions of his far more dominating and dastardly giant peers with names such as Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), Gizzardgulper (Chris Gibbs) and others. He knows that he himself can't atone for their actions, snatching children from their beds at night, but in his own words "It be as good as I can do."

There is not much that happens in The BFG, a simple tale told simply. There will be some who consider that to be a weakness, while I consider it to be one of the film's greatest strengths. We have become accustomed to Hollywood's studios force-feeding us distractions and attractions and gizmos and fantastical scenery simply because the technology is available to give us fantastical scenery. Somehow, even though The BFG is a film that could not have been made 30-40 years ago, and maybe not even ten years ago, it is a film that feels classical in presentation and strangely and wonderfully retro.

As a side note, however, I would acknowledge that the available 3-D version of the film is utterly unnecessary and, in fact, somewhat detracts from the warmth and intimacy and wonderment of the story.

As the film's heroine, newcomer Ruby Barnhill is ideally cast. Barnhill's Sophie is both wise old soul and vulnerable young girl. She believably and quite wondrously captures Sophie's isolation and loneliness, while being perhaps braver than any girl we've ever known.

The script, from the late Melissa Matheson, who also penned Spielberg's E.T., is respectful of Dahl's words yet nicely adapts them into a way that resonates cinematically. Purists may be huffled about, but those who understand the differences between literature and cinema will be appreciative.

If you are familiar with Spielberg's earliest works, and you should be, you should understand that The BFG is paced as it needs to be rather than as Hollywood would have it be. Those used to distraction in contemporary family cinema may find it a tad slow. Hogglewash. It's a beautiful film that allows that beautiful to spread out gently over its cinematic landscape rather than to simply dominate the landscape like a high-speed rollercoaster.

While The BFG may not prove to be one of Spielberg's greatest financial successes, rest assured that in years to come it will prove to be as beloved as his most embraced family films. With wonder and magic and a celebration of the power of friendship, The BFG is a reminder that even when Spielberg is an icon he is, perhaps first and foremost, someone who believes in the power of cinema.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic