Each of Steven Spielberg’s fantasy films involves a close encounter of some kind. What distinguishes them is where those encounters lead.
Jaws, Spielberg’s first fantasy, led to death. Close Encounters of the Third Kind – perhaps his definitive one – led to mysterious possibility. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial led to enlightenment and Hook led to parental responsibility. The central encounter in The BFG leads to something quainter: domestic comfort.
Based on the Roald Dahl children’s book, The BFG tells the story of an orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who is snatched from her bed one night by a 30-foot-tall giant. Taken to “Giant Country,” she eventually befriends her abductor (“BFG” stands for Big Friendly Giant) and learns that there are much larger, meaner giants who routinely sneak off in the night to devour “human beans.” Together, she and the BFG concoct a plan to stop them.
Early in the film, Sophie wanders the halls of the orphanage long after everyone else is asleep. Before returning to the bunk room — a long hall with rows and rows of beds — she pauses in front of an elaborate doll house, gazing longingly at a tiny recreation of a cozy, private bedroom. Little does she know that when the giant plucks her from her orphanage bed and whisks her away, she’s headed to a somewhat similar setting.
The abduction scene is pure Spielberg. When the giant’s hand reaches through the orphanage window, bright lights stream in from behind it, as if the hand was emerging from E.T.’s spaceship. Stealing through the nighttime streets, the giant disguises himself with cloak and shadow, adopting the shape of a street lamp here, the outline of a pine tree there. It’s an exhilarating sequence, punctuated by dizzying shots of the journey from Sophie’s swerving point of view.
Once we make it to the giant’s cave, we get a better look at him. If the CGI animation still bears a trace of the uncanny valley — that place where computer-generated human features are convincing, yet still eerily unreal — I was nevertheless won over by the vocal performance given by Mark Rylance (last seen as Rudolph Abel in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies). Dahl gave the giant a comically mixed-up vocabulary (“Is I left or is I right?”) that Rylance adopts, but doesn’t lean on too heavily. Instead, the characterization comes largely from his grumbles and sighs, giving us a sense of an outsider even among his own people. The giant, above all, is lonely.
Sophie is lonely as well, and so there is something poignant about the moment when the giant sets her in a miniature bedroom that has been hollowed out from a tree trunk in his cave. Against all odds and in the most fantastic way imaginable, she’s found herself inside that dollhouse.
As the story unfolds, there are some antic action sequences involving those bigger giants, as well as some broad humor with the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton). If the ending (a tweak to Dahl’s) is a bit dissatisfying, that’s because it tries to locate Sophie’s happiness in a conventional place — an unconvincing approximation of a traditional nuclear family — rather than in her relationship with the giant. The movie tries to cure Sophie’s loneliness in a conservative way, when a wilder, more whimsical solution was staring it in the face.
Still, The BFG manages at least one magical moment that will go down among my favorite scenes from Spielberg’s filmography. The giant, we learn, captures nightmares and dreams with a net and then bottles them — the nightmares to be quarantined, the dreams to be softly dispersed into children’s bedrooms as they sleep. As the giant describes one of the dreams — about a boy who receives an important call from the President of the United States — we see the boy sleeping in the foreground while the dream unfolds as a shadow play behind him. It’s a lovely evocation of the ephemeral nature of our happy, delightful fantasies — of which The BFG is one.