“The witching hour, somebody had once whispered to her, was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep, deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world to themselves.”
Anyone who has read Roald Dahl’s 1982 classic children’s novel “The BFG” knows the quiet moments of the witching hour are magical enough to awe both the youthful and the aged. Dreams, fed through a trumpet from the titular big friendly giant to the people of London, can amaze, stun, terrify and stupefy.
Legendary director Steven Spielberg’s latest, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, written by the late Melissa Mathison (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”), is a return to the fantastical films of his past. From “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to the later, more maligned “Hook” and “A.I.,” Spielberg has continued to construct a universe of realized childhood dreams, with marvelous characters and stunning visual imagery to match.
“The BFG” follows that big friendly giant (Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”) and a small girl named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), whom he snatched up from her orphanage, as they try to stop the other man-eating giants from eating innocent people. It’s the latest in the canon of Spielberg special effects films, and it knocks the others out of the park — visually, at least. From the first shots of the BFG weaving through the cobblestone streetscape of London in the early morning hours, turning on a dime to hide from pedestrians and cars, the careful choreography of the film is clear: whoever is responsible for the film’s visual effects should be lauded heavily. Perhaps the most stellar example is a captivating dream-catching sequence in the shadows of a mythical tree laden with floating specks of dream stuff. The magic doesn’t stop at grandiosity: in between the scenes of the massive world around Sophie, some of the film’s most heartfelt moments come in the intimate shots, close ups on her and the giant.
The performances, for the most part, are equally extraordinary. Rylance, transformed into a giant through motion capture technology, acts with genuine warmth. He acts through the technology, not despite it; every eye movement or nervous smile feels so true. The other giants, led by The Fleshlumpeater (the wickedly funny Jemaine Clement, “Flight of the Conchords”) are a bit more cartoonish, but it’s forgivable, like their wildly rambunctious fits. Meanwhile, on the formal end of the film, the Queen (Penelope Wilton, “Downton Abbey”) and her maid (the always underrated Rebecca Hall, “Frost/Nixon”) and butler (Rafe Spall, “The Big Short”) are prim and proper, exuding a regality that borders on excessive, heavily contrasting the savage life of the giants with the orderly customs of Buckingham Palace.
In the middle is Sophie, our protagonist. Barnhill embodies the archetypal young Spielberg character — precocious yet perpetually in awe of what she purports to already know. While Spielberg has an incredible track record of coaching wonderful performances out of young kids, somehow Barnhill just doesn’t live up to expectations. Her voice is showy (think Veruca Salt in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and her words are obvious exposition. Dialogue flows unnaturally as if she was specifically cued to say each line.
Thankfully, where the writing may falter, Spielberg’s regular below-the-line trio of composer John Williams, editor Michael Kahn and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński realize Spielberg’s cinematic vision. Williams’s music swells at just the right moments, sucking the audience into his regular partner’s world. Kahn keeps the film moving quickly, but is able to linger on the moments that really count. Kamiński expertly navigates around the complications motion-capture may pose as he follows Sophie to assure us it’s her story.
Spielberg has been consistently crafting masterpieces since 1975’s “Jaws” literally invented the blockbuster. Of his now thirty movies, at least a full third could be considered perfect films. Though “The BFG” doesn’t match the genius of some of his prior efforts, there’s enough here to satisfy fans. While Spielberg’s grasp on the film-going audience may be flickering, the moments of brilliance are still there, as strong as ever.