We’re well beyond the point in Steven Spielberg’s career where we need to meditate very long on the man’s films. At this point, you either adore him or you’re ambivalent. I fall firmly into the latter category, acknowledging that he’s a consummate craftsman and a technically proficient filmmaker, all while being aware that his films leave me cold. Sure, they can be entertaining, but there’s a strange lack of humanness, passion or true imagination in them. This is a distinct issue for his latest film, The BFG. Based on the middle-grade book of the same title by Roald Dahl, this is a story — like pretty much anything Dahl wrote — that cries out for whimsy. Whimsy, unfortunately, is not a word I’d use to describe the films of Steven Spielberg. Even his most famous work of pseudo-fantastic filmmaking, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), a film that follows along similar thematic roads as The BFG), has a distinct lack of capriciousness. It’s simply not a piece of Spielberg’s repertoire.
Four decades into his cinematic career means it’s unlikely to crop up anytime soon. He does, however, occasionally understand good-naturedness, which is the best description of The BFG I can think of. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie, a young orphan who accidentally spots a giant (played by a motion-captured Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies). Fearing he’ll be outed, the giant whisks Sophie away to a land inhabited by other giants. The two quickly become pals, as Sophie names him the Big, Friendly Giant (raise your hand if you thought the “F” stood for something else). But, at the same time, the BFG isn’t particularly liked by the other giants around him, and it’s up to him and Sophie to concoct a plan to thwart them.
Spielberg’s idea is to infuse all of this with a sense of wonder and scope. But, again, I think his approach is a problem. He’s still fiddling around with motion capture, a method that, at least in the hands of its biggest practitioners (Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis a few years back), seems to suck the fun out of any film. It’s a filmmaking tool that feels sterile and inhuman and occasionally looks sort of creepy. Spielberg used it a few years back in The Adventures of Tintin (2011), a pretty dull movie that should’ve been anything but, and I think much of the problem was that he exchanged a technique for a style. While there’s a mix of live action and CGI, Spielberg leans heavily towards the latter. So, while he’s able to make a movie with a certain sweetness about it — one about dreams and friendship — there’s still an unfortunate emotionlessness to it. Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor.