Most young girls probably would prefer not to be snatched from bed by a hand the size of a London taxicab, toted half-blind across moors and mountain ranges, whisked through crackling thunderclouds, and at last hung like a drying cheese high up in the cave of a shambling, muttering, misshapen figure who wields a cleaver three times their length. In this sense, the heroine of The BFG, 10-year-old Sophie, is much like other girls, though different too. She trembles at her freakish captor’s appetite; she despairs of escaping from his gargantuan lair. But above all, she’s royally ticked off by her loss of self-reliance.
Despite the impression you might get from her big reading glasses and rosebud mouth, with a notch between the front teeth like an inverted V for “vulnerable,” Sophie (the faultlessly self-confident Ruby Barnhill) manages for herself where she usually lives, in a Thames-side orphanage left over from the Victorian era. As screenwriter Melissa Mathison and director Steven Spielberg establish at the start of The BFG, with a brisk efficiency to equal their protagonist’s, she’s the kind of bright, bossy, slightly sneaky child who wanders at will in the night, keeps an eye out for the early mail delivery (in case one of her fellow orphans receives something interesting), and can credibly threaten arrest when customers at the pub down the road make too much noise at closing time. Sophie might be underestimated in the grown-up world, but she can maneuver in it, if mostly on the sly.
Now, kidnapped by someone much larger than any human adult but also (when you get to know him) oddly bashful and ingenuous, she doesn’t at first know quite what to do: cower, remonstrate, instruct, or just play along with an increasingly enchanted game.
There’s an abundance of enchantment, in fact, which enables Spielberg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel to charm and excite, meanwhile offering children useful lessons about being kind and imaginative, standing up to bullies, and shunning cannibalism. For both children and their grown-ups, the movie may also deepen in emotion thanks to the complexity of Sophie’s responses to the Big Friendly Giant and his world, with its seamless blend of filmed objects and computer-animated marvels. And for some grown-ups, there will be even more to think about, since The BFG could also be titled The Testament of Steven Spielberg.
You don’t need to hold the endowed chair in semio-babble at Jacques Lacan University to recognize that Spielberg, cofounder of DreamWorks, might have found a mirror for himself in Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant, who teaches Sophie how to chase dreams and bottle them. Some filmmakers, like Jean Renoir, represent themselves on screen as people of homey appearance and manner, wise enough in the ways of the world to get along cheerfully but sufficiently disappointed to wonder why they bother. Spielberg, who for better and worse has never shown much interest in human-scaled cinema, makes his self-portrait three stories tall, with the voice and computer-enhanced face of Mark Rylance, and gives this stand-in a magical occupation to match. The perpetrator of Jaws presumably has something in common with a character who knows how to concoct nightmares. The Hollywood titan with sure instincts about public sentiment may fantasize that his ears, like those of the BFG, are immense fans that he flaps at will, attuning him to “all the secret whisperings of the world.”