I was worried about Steven Spielberg. Granted, he’s a billionaire genius who probably doesn’t need us to lose sleep over his oeuvre, but after 2005’s Munich, his trajectory has been a little scattered. He went back to the Indiana Jones well with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; dipped into animation with Tintin; stepped backwards to World War I on War Horse; made the decidedly un-Spielbergian (though excellent) biopic Lincoln; and then made the ur-Spielbergian spy thriller Bridge of Spies. The latter film, starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer involved in a Cold War exchange, capped off an uneven period we dubbed his dad rock phase. But with his latest film, a lavishly staged adaptation of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Spielberg has found the ol’ magic again.
Bridge of Spies was not a bad movie per se. In fact, if you’re in the mood for a tense film that features a handful of men in suits talking to each other for over two hours, then put this one on your on demand queue, pronto. The main problem was that Bridge of Spies was so relentlessly old-fashioned, it felt out of place in 2015. Bridge of Spies felt like it would have made more sense in the mid-to-early 1960s, with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role and a John Ford-type director behind the camera.
The performances in Spielberg’s movie were solid, his direction was completely on point, the script by the Coen brothers was appropriately witty, and it got a sufficient amount of awards season buzz (including a win for Mark Rylance). But still, it didn’t feel like anything but adequate.
Maybe it’s a case of unfair expectations for a filmmaker who’s made masterpiece after masterpiece; that’s the standard he has set. Luckily, Spielberg remembered that he’s the most important grown up kid in Hollywood, and finally acted on his option on Road Dahl’s classic 1982 novel.
The BFG, which re-teams the director with Rylance (as the titular big friendly giant) and newcomer Ruby Barnhill (as his normal-sized friend Sophie) reproves Spielberg’s knacks for kids’ movies, and despite being an adaptation, it’s maybe the most fun and kid-oriented movie he’s ever made. He brought to life a world in which you can be whisked away from your dreary London orphanage to a faraway land of hilariously bickering giants, and then a couple of days later be having breakfast with the Queen of England. It’s a superficially simple story, which might make it easy for people to miss its rich thematic subtext.
It isn’t so much a rebirth, but a reorientation to the kind of wonder and awe that made Spielberg into the vaunted filmmaker he is today. This isn’t to say that he should abandon films that cover important, heavy subject matter like Munich, just that it might have been tough for him to remember to play to his strengths for awhile there.
The reason for the quick revival and coming into focus again might be because The BFG is the first Spielberg movie with a Disney logo in the credits. It’s also the second and final collaboration between Spielberg and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who died in 2015), and they have once again made a movie about a kid who finds a friend from the most unlikely place. The combination of Rylance’s performance as the bumbling giant, Barnhill’s intrepid orphan explorer, and the storytelling sensibilities of Spielberg and Disney make for a movie that feels endlessly imaginative. Its gloriously absurd juxtapositions of Elizabeth II, the orphaned Sophie, and the dream-catching giant wouldn’t make sense any other way.
The film coalesces into classic Spielberg — which has been sorely missed in the last decade or so — because he doesn’t use the story’s source material to cannibalize similar themes from his previous movies to repackage them for a younger audience, as he did in Tintin. Instead, The BFG is Spielberg doing a kids book adaptation that plays to his wondrous, uncynical strengths. Here’s hoping he can keep this new winning phase going.