(Danger, Danger: mild spoilers lie ahead for “The BFG”)
Early on while watching the new film, “The BFG,” a feeling I hadn’t experienced in a Steven Spielberg movie in a long time swept over me.
A sense of wonderment.
If you’re of a certain age and you spent your formative youth worshipping at the alter of the cinema as Spielberg was laying the foundation of his legend, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the same feeling we had watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. A sense of astonishment at what we are seeing onscreen.
The scene I’m referring to involves The BFG — Big Friendly Giant — sneaking around London in the evening. His huge shadows dart about from brownstone to brownstone, and every time a delivery truck or someone walking down the street gets close, he uses the darkness as cover. He uses his horn to act as a lamppost, a curtain to hide an alleyway, and even jumps in the back of a truck to stay out of sight.
It’s a fun, whimsical little sight gag delivered by a movie master. Yes, the CGI work done to bring BFG and his fellow giants to cinematic life is spectacular. The film’s many closeup shots of the giants showcase their pores, facial hair and huge teeth, and even during a time when the summer movie season includes a superhero battle royale, a war bound Orcs and vibrantly colored fish, it’s still visually stunning.
But while the technical wizardry is nice eye candy and all, but what really makes this scene work is that Spielberg has injected that devilish childlike charm, that joie de vivre that so many of his best movies are known for.
What makes The BFG a really, really good film — darn near great, actually — is the tone. It’s a pure children’s story, with moments dark and light but like all good kid’s tales, parents can enjoy it too. The way Spielberg touches on Sophie’s plight as a child without a mother or father is vague enough to not traumatize younger kids. Also, the details of BFG’s backstory that explains his melancholy and solitary existence will likely escape the grasp of most young children (parents, be happy about that. Be VERY happy about that).
The story, for those who don’t know the Roald Dahl book it’s based on, is about a little orphan named Sophie who wakes up one restless night, peers out the orphanage window, and spots a giant walking the streets. The giant, afraid she’ll tell people what she saw, takes her and heads back to his home in a distant and hidden valley of giants. There, they form a bond as they both come to realize they share many things in common, including the fact that both feel like outcasts.
It has many elements familiar to many of Spielberg’s most famous movies. It’s very funny, with some of the biggest laughs coming from BFG’s catastrophically fractured English. here’s an example:
There are also staples of past Spielberg movies: Lonely children from troubled family backgrounds who find comfort and friendship in an unlikely source, journeys driven by faith and determination, and most of all, wide-eyed wonder.
It was an absolute joy, and while I know it’s supposed to get creamed at the box office this Fourth of July weekend by the Finding Dory juggernaut, I hope it finds an audience. One, because it’s a good movie, but also because it’s a good movie that seems to feature the most spirited directing job by Spielberg in many years.
Even though I consider myself a Spielberg fan of the first order, I think his past decade or so of filmmaking has been rather spotty. Ask yourself: When was the last time he made a truly great movie? I’d say you have to go back to 2002, with Catch Me If You Can.
(sorry Minority Report fans. It’s not quite great)
I don’t think Spielberg has actually made a ‘bad’ movie in his career, but since his creative peak in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan, one gets the sense that the preeminent filmmaker of our generation has been in some version of cruise control. Now, this is a guy who can shoot a big-budget behemoth like War of the Worlds in two months. His version of cruise control is different than yours and mine.
When you reach a certain stage in life — and Spielberg is now 69 — some people become so good at their jobs they can do it in their sleep. In recent years, pictures like The Adventures of Tintin and Lincoln have lacked the verve that the best Spielberg movies have. Often they seem like just the latest projects on the Amblin’ assembly line. The wunderkind director who turned his name into an above-the-title drawing card has almost seemed to be a work-for-hire craftsman, albeit the most gifted craftsman Hollywood has ever seen.
But watching The BFG felt different than some of his recent films. It didn’t feel as methodical as Lincoln or predictable as War Horse. There were a number of moments in the movie — like when the giant takes Sophie back to his valley, leaping and hopping across the seaside and from cliff to cliff — where I pictured Spielberg smiling and laughing as he storyboarded the sequence with his team. That thought hit me again after the movie was over.
Think about the moments in your favorite Spielberg film that still remain fresh in your mind.
The boulder scene in Raiders.
The moment in Jaws where Roy Schneider sees the shark for the first time.
The slow pan shot in Jurassic Park where we see the Brachiosaur in its full glory, with John Williams’ majestic score.
Think back to the expression on your face the first time you saw those scenes — I’ll wager it involved wide eyes and a slack jaw.
Those unforgettable moments are what made Spielberg, SPIELBERG.
No other director in our lifetime or any other has ever had such a gift for delivering the spectacular. He did it for so long, so well, that he spoiled us.
So when Hollywood’s greatest home run hitter only hits a double (Minority Report or The Lost World) or even a single (Hook – I know, I’m being kind), the complaints are louder and the disappointment greater, because expectations are so high.
It’s not fair, but when your oeuvre includes five films on AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies, it’s kind of the way it goes.
Over the years, I think Spielberg has become so efficient as a director and so savvy as a producer, that it’s almost worked against him in some way.
The guy whose first three big studio films went wildly over budget and over schedule is a moviemaking machine. He’s directed 29 feature-length motion pictures, including The BFG, since 1974. And even a middling Spielberg film like Bridge of Spies is usually better than most other studio offerings.
But I don’t want just another Spielberg movie. I’m sure The Terminal has plenty of diehard fans. Gods bless ‘em. But I want more from the guy who defined my moviegoing tastes. I want the big risks, I want Ready Player One and Indiana Jones 5, two of his next announced projects,to deliver the magical moments that make me remember how I felt when I first encountered this.
It’s not like he can’t do it. After seeing The BFG, I have no doubt Spielberg can still swing for the fences.
I just hope he still wants to.